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UN commemorates first anniversary of resolution on the human right to water and sanitation

Maude Barlow (National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians), Anil Naidoo (Blue Planet Organizer) and I were in New York City this week to participate in events commemorating the one year anniversary of the UN General Assembly (GA) resolution on the human right to water and sanitation.

On Wednesday morning, joined by colleagues from Food and Water Watch, Corporate Accountability International and Michigan State University, we met with Catarina de Albuquerque, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. We discussed how to advance and make concrete the historic UN resolutions passed last year recognizing water and sanitation as a fundamental human right.

In addition to the UN GA resolution, on September 30, 2010, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) passed a resolution recognizing the human right to water and sanitation as already entrenched in international law and therefore legally binding.

In the afternoon the UN GA held a plenary meeting to commemorate the year anniversary of the UN GA resolution. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon addressed the GA opening the meeting with an overview of the world’s water crisis. He urged countries to include the right to water and sanitation in their national constitutions if they had not already done so.

Evo Morales, President of the Plurination State of Bolivia, began the afternoon’s speeches stressing that the resolution must be respected and that water cannot be commodified nor can it be subject to trade agreements. President Morales pointed to responsibility of governments to give people the right to this natural resource. Despite the droughts experienced in Bolivia in recent years, the South American country has enshrined the right to water in the nation’s constitution.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, was next to give a speech. She began by quoting Elaneor Roosevelt who said that human rights begin in small places, close to home. The quote ends by noting that “Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” De Albuquerque urged members to use the GA resolution as a guide to putting an end to all the suffering related to lack of safe drinking water and sanitation. She said it required a shift in governments, NGOs, civil society and other stakeholders. The resolution provides hope for the poorest, indigenous communities and people with disabilities, who are normally voiceless, that they are longer left behind.

She warned that the current MDGs do not reflect discrimination that exists in water and sanitation. MDG target 7c calls for governments to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” However, success under this target is measured by each instance where water was provided via an improved water source, such as a tap, and does not measure the quality of water coming from the improved water source. While it is critical to have a target aimed at reducing the number of people without safe drinking water and basic sanitation, this indicator can give a false sense of success.

The European Union’s statement acknowledged the different positions on the resolutions among European countries. The EU called Rio +20 an “unique opportunity for world to secure renewal of political commitment to water” and stated they wanted to achieve significant results.

Spain emphasized the importance of drawing up national action plans and the need to identify good practices.

The US outlined several important points stemming from the GA resolution including the need for progressive realization, non-discrimination, access to cooking water, water in sufficient quantity and quality and the need for greater transparency and accountability.

France highlighted the need to move towards implementation and the need for enforcement mechanisms.

The representative from St. Vincent and the Grenadines gave a passionate speech in which they reiterated their support for the resolution. St. Vincent and the Grenadines was a co-sponser to last year’s GA resolution and have invested a tremendous amount of money to realizing this human right. The representative noted that the country had increased piped water from 70% to 98% coverage. He warned members of imminent threats including water scarcity and climate change and its link to water access.

Other countries that made statements include Brazil, Egypt, Peru, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Germany, El Salvador, Sweden, Nicaragua, Madagascar, Senegal, Djibouti, South Africa, Hungary, Switzerland, Australia, Burkina Faso, Maldives, Morocco and Venezuela. Canada did not make a statement on the GA resolution. To read more about the meeting, click here.

While recognition of the human right to water and sanitation by the UN last year was historic, our next steps are even more critical. Governments of all levels, civil society and other stakeholders must work to make concrete and give life the GA and HRC resolutions. The HRC resolution calls upon states to develop “comprehensive plans and strategies for the sector, including financial ones, to achieve progressively the full realization of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, including in currently unserved and underserved areas.”

Last month Maude Barlow released the report Our Right to Water: A People’s Guide to Implementing the United Nations’ Recognition of the Right to Water and Sanitation outlining governments’ obligations set out by this human right. On Wednesday, the Council of Canadians released the Canadian edition of this report which specifies the Canadian government’s legal obligations under the human right to water and sanitation. The report can be found at www.canadians.org.  To read an op-ed by Maude Barlow summarizing Canada’s obligations, see ‘Do you have running water? I don’t and I live in Canada.

The next critical step for Canada as well as other countries around the world is to develop a national plan outlining how they will progressively realize the human right to water and sanitation. As Barlow has noted, ““Even though the Harper government shockingly did not vote for the right to water and sanitation, it is bound now by this obligation.” With the year anniversary of the GA resolution this week and the year anniversary for the HRC resolution coming up this fall, we await the Canadian government to take their first step in fulfilling their legal obligations on the human right to water and sanitation.