Skip to content

Water, Human Rights and the Future We Want

In the midst of very complex negotiations related to political commitments to sustainable development, the meaning of green economy and renewing institutional frameworks; a very significant conflict has emerged at the Rio+20 Informal Informals. The negotiations on the Zero Draft for Rio+20 has now become the most important forum for a struggle between those who support the UN’s historic recognition of the human right to water and sanitation (HRTWS) and others who maintain that water and sanitation are not human rights.

The European Union, Canada and New Zealand, in amendments to the original Zero Draft – ‘The Future We Want’ – have suggested language which effectively denies recognition of the human right to water and sanitation by substituting proposals focused on ‘access to water’, which is neither legally binding nor recognised in international law. This is language that was often put forward before the human right to water was recognised in 2010, and is not acceptable in a world where water is increasingly scarce and where implementing states’ legal obligations to respect protect and fulfil the human right to water and sanitation would have a profound impact on the lives of millions. Water is life, and denial of the right to water, which is inextricably linked to the right to sanitation, will condemn millions.

The stakes could not be higher, if Canada, New Zealand, Denmark and the UK (Denmark as chair of the EU and the UK as a leading opponent within the EU; both pivotal in positioning the EU) do not reconsider their position and if other governments opportunistically join them to abandon their legal obligations, it will take an heroic effort from civil society and supportive states to stand firm.

Civil society is watching and awakened to what is at stake, so states should be aware that this will not pass quietly. In the two short days since this threat has come to light, over one hundred respected civil society organizations have signed a letter demanding respect for the human right to water and sanitation and that states respect their legal obligations stemming from General Assembly resolution A/Res/64/292, Human Rights Council resolution A/HRC/15/L/14, and subsequent resolutions at the HRC and WHO. States are being questioned on their position and the Group of 77 is being supported to hold firm on their commitment to the HRTWS. The Special Rapporteur on Water has been alerted and her office is engaged in this debate. Amnesty International is briefing its sectors and the world’s trade union movement is also pressing to protect this hard won right. Ironically, Rio is getting much more attention than previously, but for the wrong reasons. With World Water Day on Thursday, 22nd March, there will certainly be global concern expressed if this day marks the loss of the human right to water!

Vigilance is the key, as Special Rapporteur on Water, Catarina de Albuequerque has previously counselled water activists. We must take this to heart if we do not want to witness a tragic abrogation of responsibility and legal obligations over the next days here at the United Nations in New York. The human right to water and sanitation must appear in Rio, as a signal of the connections between society and the environment, and as a safeguard in the negotiations, alongside other human rights.

As a final caution, if the human right to water and sanitation is removed, it may never recover to be implemented, as those opposed will be emboldened and reinforced. Can we accept a future that does not protect this most fundamental of rights, is this the future we want? This is the question we need to put to the EU, Canada and New Zealand over the next days of negotiations.