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UPDATE: Barlow says we must both defend and expand the right to water

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow spoke at the main plenary session on ‘the implementation of the right to water’ at the ‘Forum Alternatif Mondial de l’Eau’ this evening in Marseille, France.

She began by challenging the United Nations statement that the Millennium Development Goal on drinking water had been met. She said that building pipes does not mean that those pipes are in homes providing water, they could still be a long walk away; nor does it mean that those water services aren’t privatized, meaning there may be water, but it could be too expensive for people to buy. She highlighted that we are a planet running out of water in which demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent within two decades. She expressed concern that the UN has sent a message that all is well, when that is not the case.

She then said that the UN recognizes that governments, not corporations, are responsible for delivering clean water and sanitation. She said some see water as a commodity that should be traded on the stock exchange, and that people should have the ‘right’ to be able to buy water. She said that full cost pricing turns responsibility over to the consumer. She stated that the United Nations recognized right to water and sanitation is one buffer to prevent privatization because it puts the onus on the government to fulfill these rights. Barlow noted that governments must come up with a plan of action to meet their obligations with respect to the right to water and sanitation whether or not they voted for it at the UN General Assembly in July 2010. Governments have the obligation to respect, to protect, and to fulfill.

Barlow told the audience that she had written a ‘Right to Water’ report and that now the water justice movements in a number of countries have produced their reports on the implementation of the right to water. She said that those reports are available on the Council of Canadians and Blue Planet Project websites. And she encouraged activists to work with the Blue Planet Project to produce more of these reports.

She said that we need to enlarge the definition of the human right to water and sanitation, that it can be seen as individualistic now, and that it can pit rights against other rights. She said we need to articulate a new vision of what the rights mean as third generation rights – as a collective right, a cultural right, a resource right. Barlow said that water must never be commodified and that it must be protected from marketization and privatization. She said she is very concerned about the green economy. And she said by saying that the right to water and sanitation is not a static right, and that we must bring it within the context of the rights of nature. She added we must need to think of how we treat the Earth now as we now think about slavery. “The peoples movement will win over the corporate movement,” she concluded.

Terrific speakers followed this talk. Indigenous leader Art Manuel spoke about the rights of Indigenous peoples, the trade show aspect of the 6th World Water Forum, and raised the fact that Europeans moved to North American because of clean water – “they didn’t come for dirty water” – and now that is under strain. Mary Ann Manahan of Focus on the Global South spoke about the right to water in Asia. She said that although 27 Asian countries recognized the right to water and sanitation, few have committed to its implementation and most see the way forward with the market and the private sector. University of Zaragoza professor Pedro Arrojo-Agudo said that we are living in a time of crisis in which many people suffer. He said what we are seeing now in Europe is not austerity, it is social sabotage. He said it is not austerity to condemn people to unemployment and yet not block tax havens. He said when you sell your water services for money, it is like you are selling your ‘home’, you will still need to buy that water the next day. And Alexandros Kastrinakis of Thessaloniki 136 said that under austerity Greece is no longer a country, it is a colony of the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. He said, “Nothing belongs to us anymore, including water.” He concluded his remarks with “They messed with the wrong people, be prepared, be united, this is total war.” The evening was ably moderated by Sylvie Paquerot.