The Guardian UK reports, “Governments have been accused of backtracking on their commitments after ministers at the World Water Forum were charged with failing to define water and sanitation as human rights. In a ministerial declaration, eighty-four government ministers and dozens of other national representatives endorsed the five-page statement calling for a ‘new approach’ to water policy ahead of the Rio+20 conference…” The ministerial declaration commits only to “human rights obligations relating to access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation” rather than to “the human right to water and sanitation”. Meera Karunananthan, national water co-ordinator for the Council of Canadians, a civil society organisation, said, ‘The fear is that countries can now say this is the latest international language’…”
A warning from the UN special rapporteur
Early last week, Catarina de Albuquerque, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation, “stressed that the international human rights standard on water and sanitation agreed at the UN must guide the negotiations at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Brazil in June and the post-2015 development goals.” By the middle of the week, de Albuquerque cautioned those gathered for the Alternative World Water Forum, “Be vigilant. The Marseille Ministerial Declaration is already being used at the Human Rights Council in Geneva to weaken these rights.”
Efforts underway to remove the right to water from the Rio+20 text
The counter-attack to negate the UN General Assembly resolution and the UN Human Rights Council affirmation of these rights began months ago. In November 2011, Karunananthan wrote, “Upon learning at meetings at the United Nations that a handful of G77 states were blocking inclusion of language on the human right to water and sanitation in their joint submission for the Rio+20 zero draft negotiating text, the Council of Canadians and 37 other organizations from more than 20 different countries sent a letter calling on the G77 to include the human right to water in its submission.”
Additionally, Blue Planet Project organizer Anil Naidoo has written, “In a leaked copy of amendments to the Rio+20 negotiating text, the European Union has called for removal references to the human right to water and sanitation. This dramatic move exposes the green economy initiative for what it is, a regime that is not compatible with human rights as it clearly valued profit over people or nature. Pricing water, trading water rights and commodifying water are all clearly part of the green economy and these are not compatible with implementing the newly recognized human right to water. In trying to change the text for the Rio+20 document, the EU has realized that in order to achieve their goals of a corporate green economy, they must remove reference to human rights.”
Similar to the language found in the Marseille ministerial declaration, the Rio+20 draft text now reads, “We underline the importance of universal access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation…” It had previously read, “We underline the importance of the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right…”
The highly problematic green economy agenda
Even if the right to water and sanitation were to be included in the Rio+20 text, the green economy agenda is geared toward the undermining of these fundamental rights. The United Nations News Centre reported in October 2011, “Successful water projects can serve as templates around the world and help to stimulate the adoption of green economies… The (Zaragoza conference) placed a special focus in showcasing already successful projects of how water can be a major contributor to developing a green economy.”
Specifically, those ‘green economy templates’ for water highlighted, “the four major rivers project in the Republic of Korea; the reform of the urban water supply and sanitation sector in Yemen; water planning in Laos; and the improvement of the water supply in Burkina Faso.” But the project in South Korea includes the heavily-criticized construction of 16 dams in the main streams of four major rivers; the project in Yemen involved the decentralization of water and sanitation services to commercially run local corporations that set their own tariffs; the water project in Laos was a public-private partnership (P3); and the ‘improvement of the water supply’ in Burkina Faso involved market-oriented reforms that decentralized responsibility for water supply to municipalities which then contracted out service provision to local private companies. In Burkina Faso, Veolia was also brought in to improve the commercial practices of the public water utility.
The next battle
As such, it appears that the next battle to defend the right to water and sanitation will be at the Rio+20 ministerial this June 20-22. This will not be an easy task. In late-February, the Environment News Service reported on a Rio+20 preparatory meeting in Nairobi attended by the environment ministers from nearly 150 countries. While there was no reference in that news story to the right to water and sanitation, the article did note, “the green economy is widely viewed by ministers as a way to achieve sustainable development, poverty eradication and decent job creation…”
But there is hope. There is a vibrant and well-connected global water justice movement that won the right to water and sanitation and which is now pressing for the full implementation of these rights. That movement will be at Rio+20 to defend and expand what we have already won.