Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 17, 2003
Let's make water a human right
The right to clean water is a right-to-life issue. That's what the Vatican said at the World Water Forum in Kyoto last March.
Yet the amount of and access to clean water is diminishing, especially for the poorest people in the world's poorest countries. The reasons: overuse, pollution, lack of sanitation, global warming, wars, dams and simple water scarcity.
Another big reason - privatization. Powerful companies do not believe water is God's gift. They believe it is a commodity to be sold.
Supporting these companies are the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They say the only way to get the money to improve access to safe water and improved sanitation in developing nations is to let the private sector supply the funds wealthy nations will not give.
The problem is that when private companies gain control over water supplies, the poor lose access to water. The goal of the company is to make a profit. But profit comes only when users pay the full cost of supplying clean water, plus a profit for the company.
After that philosophy was adopted in South Africa in 1994, 10 million people lost their water service because they couldn't afford to pay the bill.
In North America, we tend to associate the private sector with greater efficiency and better management. We tend - not without reason - to associate government control with waste and profligate spending. But when basic utilities are run by the private sector, we too often end up with decreasing quality, skyrocketing profits and skyrocketing prices.
Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva declared: "The water crisis is an ecological crisis with commercial causes but no market solutions. Market solutions destroy the earth and aggravate inequality. The solution to an ecological crisis is ecological and the solution for injustice is democracy."
Clean water is too important to be treated as anything other than a basic human right.
In our current state of neglect, more than one billion people, most of them living in Asia and Africa, have no access to clean drinking water. As well, poor people in those poor nations pay on average 12 times more per litre of water than people in wealthy countries.
Lack of clean water means that every 14 seconds someone dies from a disease caused by contaminated water. The water crisis experienced in Walkerton, Ont., three years ago - when seven people died and 2,300 became ill - is a daily reality for those who live in Asia and Africa. Globally, two million people a year die from water-related diseases.
One factor that is not a factor is population growth. World water consumption grew sevenfold during the 20th century while world population grew only threefold. But the greatest increases in water consumption were in the Western world while people in the poorest, most heavily populated countries are the most frugal consumers of water.
The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has made Water: A Basic Human Right the focus of its fall action campaign. CCODP is not advocating specific policy changes so much as it is asking Catholics to commit themselves to the following four points:
Many have said that water will be the resource that defines the course of history in the 21st century just as oil defined so much of the 20th century. If that is the case, we had best make sure we handle the issue well. The right of everyone to basic sustenance must take priority over the desires of a few for expanded profits.
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