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Some thoughts on World Water Day from the UN

This World Water Day, as many around the world will be ‘celebrating’ water, I am calling on all who care for water, nature, our communities and rights to act rather than celebrate.

My message to you, written from the Rio+20 negotiations in New York at the United Nations is that the situation is desperate. Virtually every one of our past victories and future hopes are under threat and only a strong and sustained campaign will help. I cannot state my concerns any more strongly.

Over the past 3 days I have witnessed what powerful states have envisioned for the future of water and nature itself, it is truly disturbing. If we do not act, the future will be dominated by markets, pricing, financialization and property rights. In this world, their Green Economy, human rights are not respected as they challenge property rights and markets regimes and allow pressure to be brought upon the state to intervene.

So now that we have achieved the human right to water and sanitation, what do they do? Well, conveniently, if they can remove this reference from UN texts, present and future, then the right will really no longer be in effect, practically speaking, because it will be impossible to move any implementation agenda forward.

So to achieve the elimination of the human right to water and sanitation, we have seen 6 states working to remove the human right to water from the Rio+20 text. The original 4 rogue states of Canada, New Zealand, UK and Denmark (the last 2 using the EU consensus to move their agenda) have been joined by the US, Israel and Korea in undermining the human right to water and sanitation through various strategies, either focused on replacing human rights with ‘access’ or outright elimination.

In other parts of the text the attacks continue in different formats. In food security, for instance, pricing and full cost recovery are promoted as solutions and removal of ‘subsidies’ are advocated, as they are market distorting. Throughout, market-based mechanism and the role of the private sector is inserted at every opportunity. References to equity or regulation of the markets are systematically removed and all language that is seen as prescriptive on the private sector is removed. Make no mistake, this ‘environmental’ negotiation is predominantly about project the neo-liberal economic order into water, food, energy, forests, oceans, mountains …everything!

There is a deeper threat, however, beyond simple privatisation and commodification of nature itself, which is something we have dealt with in the past and is a tangible, real market challenge which we know how to deal with. The deeper threat is in the Green Economy being an instrument to establish a hegemonic property rights regime which extends into all aspects of the natural world through emphasis on natural capital, pricing, payments for ecological services, internalizing externalities and financial market mechanisms; innovative financial markets being the stuff of derivatives, speculation, hedging and all manners of uncontrollable excess and manipulation, think Enron and worse. Unleashing this on our natural world will have consequences we can only begin to imagine if we look at what happened with the mortgage and debt crisis. Add austerity which drives less ability by the state to regulate and a property rights regime that will be imposed globally as a way to protect capital, combined with trading schemes and innovative financial mechanisms and we are faced with unprecedented threats.

So where is the hope? I believe we need to begin by standing up for our hard won human right to water and sanitation, as a beginning. The attacks on this right expose their deeper agenda and if we can retain the right it will become a tool to push back on the broader Green Economy. We also need to oppose the implementation model which will be global in scale and steamroll communities and smaller states. We need to question, as the G77 is doing, what exactly is meant by new proposals being promoted by countries like Canada, the US, New Zealand and Korea alongside the EU. How can we, as a global community, agree to the Green Economy and the mechanisms to implement it when it is being purposefully left undefined and vague?

The stakes are too high to allow this headlong rush into their Green Economy even though all thoughtful people realize the dangerous road we are traveling. Instead of a global ‘solution’, we should be supporting local solutions which are actually working and which are put at risk by the hegemonic framework being proposed for nature. We should be raising up human rights in a chaotic world, not allow them to be killed, these are the safeguards that need to be in place if we are to even contemplate a fraction of this Green Economy. We need to challenge the destructive financial models that have lead us to the abyss and over in many states, not be trying to extend them into our water, land, food, oceans, forests etc.

To achieve our goals, we will need to come together as never before. We cannot afford to continue to work in our different areas, separated and isolated. The Green Economy initiative, if nothing else, exposes a deeper agenda that threatens broadly and can therefore be a point of agreement among all movements and campaigns. If we go into Rio galvanized and together, then we will have a platform from which to push back against what is an ongoing agenda. If we remain separate and fragmented we will be reacting and losing for years to come.

Here at the UN, within these concrete walls and in the sanitized environs of diplomacy and protocol, it is easy to lose sight of what is really at stake. I will report more on the negotiations as they unfold over the next week but for the course to change you will need to act and find ways to engage, there is no other way. If we are to achieve ‘the future we want’ then clearly we will have to fight for it, together! Let’s begin today on World Water Day!

Writing from the UN Rio+20 Negotiations in New York , March 22, 2012