The Battle for the World’s Water Supplies

Published on share the world resources STWR, by a backgrounder, June 11, 2009.

The future of the world’s water supplies is contested between campaigners that understand water as a basic human right, and corporations that see ‘blue gold’ as a profitable commodity – leading to a crisis that can only be resolved if water is reclaimed as a public trust and sustainably shared.

The future of the world’s water supplies is contested between campaigners that understand water as a basic human right, and corporations that see ‘blue gold’ as a profitable commodity – leading to a crisis that can only be resolved if water is reclaimed as a public trust and sustainably shared. 

Although 1.1 billion people lack access to drinking water and 2.4 billion are without adequate sanitation globally, governments have failed to implement a resource management system that can fulfil the universal human right to water. The March 2009 World Water Forum in Istanbul generated little progress in equitable water governance, recognising only that “access to drinking water and sanitation is a basic human need” in its official ministerial statement, rather than acknowledging water as a fundamental human right.

Forum delegates produced this weak outcome despite a call during the Conference by the president of the UN General Assembly, Miguel D’Escoto, for international leaders to view water as a public trust and common heritage of people and nature – and not simply a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market.

A significant obstacle to the universal realization of the right to water is the trend for private corporations to seek control of water, and  many of these businesses have considerable influence at the World Water Forum. Since water is in short supply yet irreplaceable, the eminent campaigner Susan George has referred to it as ‘universal public good’ rather than a ‘human right’, suggesting that the word ‘right’ gives the impression of an unlimited free resource. The economic values of scarcity and indispensability also make water a ‘dream come true’ for any business entrepreneur trained in classical liberal economics – a good with a permanent market, an ‘ideal product’ without substitute, and thus a lucrative asset to private business …

…Water was not included in the 1948 Human Rights declaration, but Barlow explains that lobbying from the global water justice movement has shifted the UN’s position on water rights. Most significantly, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognized in 2002 that water is a prerequisite for realizing other human rights and “indispensable for leading a life in dignity.” Grassroots activists must now push governments to accept that corporate control of water is incompatible with the goal of securing water as a universal human right. The task ahead, says Barlow, is to reclaim water as a part of the global commons that must be cooperatively managed and shared – an unattainable goal unless we reject the values of competition, unlimited growth, and private ownership that underpin economic globalisation. (full text).

More articles:

Water and Sustainable Development – Susan George, Transnational Institute;

Blue Gold: Have the Next Resource Wars Begun? – Tara Lohan, The Nation;

Blue Covenant: An Alternative Water Future – Maude Barlow, MRZine;

Further Resources.

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