Millions won’t be celebrating World Water Day

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Half of humans lack safe drinking water, while competition for water from agriculture and industry could put more people at risk in years to come, says a Portuguese lawyer who is the United Nations’ independent advocate for the right to water.

Catarina de Albuquerque, speaking ahead of World Water Day on Friday (22 March), said the official UN figure - 800 million – doesn’t provide a full picture of water poverty, estimating that some 3.5 billion people lack a safe supply.

“We know that not everybody who is getting water gets safe water,” de Albuquerque, the UN’s special rapporteur for the rights to water and sanitation, said by telephone from Lisbon.

“Many of the people I’ve met on fact-finding missions who have taps inside their houses, or who have wells next to their houses … much of this water is contaminated with human waste, because of industry, pesticide runoff, etc.,” she said when asked about the UN statistics. “So the figures are even worse than the ones that you mentioned.”

EU: The main donor

The European Union is the biggest funder of water and sanitation works in developing countries, providing an estimated €1.5 billion annually, and Brussels is calling for further support for water and sanitary toilets in global talks on a future anti-poverty framework.

A grassroots effort to declare water a fundamental right in Europe and exempt water supply and management from European Commission liberalisation policies recently became the first European Citizen Initiative to reach 1 million signatures.

De Albuquerque and six other UN rights advocates are also calling for governments to be cautious about using the market to deliver water.

The UN General Assembly recognised the right to water as a fundamental human right in 2010, giving ammunition for court challenges and international pressure.

“Increasingly, water is subject to allocation through market mechanisms, with the risk that the poor will be priced out,” the UN advocates said in a World Water Day statement.

“It is crucial to ensure cooperation between the competing users of water, to ensure that the human rights of all are realised and also that the most marginalised and vulnerable are not negatively affected by unequal resource allocation at every turn, by every decision on water resource allocation,” the statement said. 

MDG shortfall

Improving water and sanitation access formed one of the UN Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, which end in 2015. Despite steady improvements in water availability since 2000, the results from the UN paint a mixed picture:

  • Some 2.5 billion people have no sanitation facilities, with open defecation elevating the risk of disease and groundwater contamination;
  • Access to latrines changed little between 1990 and 2010 in sub-Saharan Africa and only marginally in South Asia, the world’s poorest regions;
  • Of the 800 million living in water poverty, 40% are in sub-Saharan Africa;
  • Across sub-Saharan Africa, 61% of people have a ready access to water but only 30% have latrines, the lowest rates in the world.

“Obviously there has been progress, but I don’t see World Water Day is a day to celebrate,” de Albuquerque told EurActiv. “It’s more a day that forces us to think about much more we need to do.”

“It’s also an opportunity to influence the post-MDGs,” she said, adding that the future anti-poverty framework should “eliminate inequalities.”

Heavy burden on economy

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Nobel Prize-winning president of Liberia, recently told a gathering that included EU and UN officials that bad water and sanitation take a heavy economic toll, breeding both disease and poverty.

The former bank executive and World Bank official estimated the global cost of poor water and sanitation in developing countries at $260 billion.

“All too often access to adequate sanitation in particular is seen as an outcome of development, rather than a driver of economic development and poverty reduction. South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated the potential for boosting economic development by addressing sanitation,” Sirleaf said in Monrovia at a UN meeting on the future of the MDGs.

Positions: 

“The great majority of the water we use – and which we often waste – is not for drinking, showering or brushing our teeth,” said Guido Barilla, president of the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, which is releasing a book on World Water Day, ‘The water we eat. Virtual water: what it is and how we consume it’. “It goes towards all the stages of a product lifecycle, and above all towards the food we eat. It follows from this that eating habits can have a significant impact on the availability of water resources.”

Several UN rights experts commented on World Water Day, according to a statement issued by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty, Magdalena Sepúlveda, said: “Persons living in poverty are disproportionately affected by limited access to water and are often forced to inhabit areas in which access to water is restricted owing to cost, lack of infrastructure, denial of services to persons without secure tenure, poor resource management, contamination or climate change. Access to clean water is key to reducing many aspects of poverty and States must take measures to ensure that persons living in poverty are not charged higher rates for water services owing to consumption levels.” 

John Knox, the UN Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, said:  “Improved water resources and wastewater management are key to ensuring a safe and healthy environment. Overexploitation of many of the surface water resources and great aquifers upon which irrigated agriculture and domestic supplies depend has resulted in more and more countries facing water stress or scarcity. Within those countries, it will be those living in remote areas, the marginalised and vulnerable who are most negatively affected by this water scarcity.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover, said: “Safe water and adequate sanitation are key underlying determinants of health. We have seen too often when inadequate access to water and sanitation has undermined the realisation of the right to health by threatening life, devastating health, eroding human dignity and causing deprivation. International cooperation is essential to improve water supply, manage water resources and treat waste-water. Better water management, including the protection of water ecosystems, through enhanced cooperation between all stakeholders is also crucial in preventing, controlling and reducing water-related diseases. These are indispensable steps to ensure the human right to health for everyone everywhere.”

Alfred de Zayas, the UN Independent Expert on the promotion of an equitable and democratic international order, said: “With the growth of the world population, the global climate change and the need for a greater healthy environment, access to water resources has become a crucial condition for the realisation of an equitable international order, where the needs of the peoples are effectively addressed. In this regard, the need for international cooperation, including in joint effort with relevant non-state actors, is paramount to ensure water is made available to all without discrimination. Water is a human right, an enabling right, not a mere commodity.”   

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, said: “Freshwater resources are essential for agriculture to sustain the world population with adequate and nutritious food. However, while 70% of all water resources are used for agriculture, all too often this precious and frequently limited resource is not equally shared between all those who need it, but is rather distributed according to who can afford to pay the most, or who owns the land under which it is located.”

In a joint statement, Kamala Chandrakirana, chair-rapporteur of the UN working group on discrimination against women in law and in practice, and the special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, said: “States must pay attention to the gender dimensions of water supply and distribution since women are intrinsically linked to water resources because of their roles and responsibilities in using and managing water, in particular in rural areas.”

“Since women and girls often cook, clean, farm, and provide health care and hygiene for their households,” the statement said, “they are on the front lines of their communities’ water issues. They often have to travel considerable distances to collect water, facing an enhanced risk of sexual and other forms of violence. Women’s voices must be heard at local, national and international levels if global equity is to prevail in the water-scarce world we are living in.”

Timeline: 
  • 22 March: World Water Day
External links: 

European Union

International organisations

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