Bloom Blog

Insights from Michael Bloomfield, Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Foundation

Water as a Human Right

When it comes to global water resources, Canada is a powerhouse.

Canada holds the third largest reserves of renewable freshwater, as much as 20% of the world’s supply.

And we use a lot of it. We use four times more water than European cities with similar standards of living and more than 200 times more than residents of water-poor nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Canadians consume 350 liters of water a day per capita, second only to the Americans. According to the CBC, the average person needs only between 20 and 40 liters of water a day for drinking and sanitation.

While we have and use a lot of water, we are also very protective of it. On the one hand, Canada has steadfastly refused to commodify water.  Commercial bulk- exports of water are banned, and talk of pipelines going south of the border is decidedly off the table. Canada realizes that once we set a precedent of selling water, the Americans will argue that it is a commodity and therefore subject to the jurisdiction of NAFTA.  At that point we would stand to lose all control over our water supplies.

While we oppose commercialization and commodification of water we also have opposed the recognition of water as a human right, as a fundamental component of life and, more concretely, a necessary part humanitarian relief.  On July 28th of this year, after more than 15 years of debate on the issue, the UN decreed access to fresh water to be a human right. 122 countries voted in favor of the motion, while 41 abstained— including Canada, the United States, and Britain.

The non-binding text “declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life. It notes that roughly two million people die every year from diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation, most of them small children. The resolution points to the pledge made by world leaders in 2000 as part of the poverty-reduction Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to reduce by half, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The resolution urges states and international organizations to provide financial and technological assistance to help developing countries “scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable water and sanitation for all.”

The resolution does not obligate the water-rich signatories to export water abroad.

Nonetheless, it seems that even the slightest potential infringement on Canada’s water sovereignty is enough to send us running for safety, even if that means thirsty others are left behind.

Maude Barlow, a former senior adviser to the UN General Assembly on the water issue, said Canada and the others abstained out of fear “that they are going to be asked to pay the price tag” or that the resolution would give “tools to their own people to use against them.”[1]

It is now an overused adage that fresh water is going to be the oil of the 21st century, and that as it becomes increasingly scarce, its value will exponentially increase, and that soon a “liquid gold rush” will be upon us. Water may have commercial value, and that may be on the rise, but water is fundamentally different than gold. It is a necessity, not a luxury,  and without it life is not possible.
Profiteering would be reprehensible and incredibly dangerous. Water-starved people will not go down without a fight. If we don’t help them there, more are surely coming here.

By 2030, it is expected that 47 percent of the global population will be living in areas of high water stress.  As water becomes increasingly scarce, it is expected that food supplies around the world will decrease, individuals will be displaced from their homes, forced to become environmental refugees, and competition for freshwater resources will increase to a fevered pitch.  Competition for water is already commonplace. 145 nations contain regions located within international river basins.  These shared water resources may be the foundation for international “water wars” if we aren’t careful.

Rather than accept the inevitability of water-related conflict, trans-boundary cooperation must be encouraged, indeed actively pursued.  This cooperation may entail shared water protection and management plans or the development of cooperation agreements.  International cooperation, coupled with informed domestic management and political decisions, will be critical for maintaining peace and resolving the problems inherent to global water scarcity.

To be good water stewards, it is important that we take a proactive and scientifically informed approach to water protection and management.  It is not enough to simply react to water crises.  Water knows no political boundaries and effortlessly flows across municipal, provincial and international borders.  Therefore, it is important that all levels of government and communities cooperate and develop a multi-jurisdictional, integrated approach to the protection of our water supply and quality.

For the good of both Canada and the world’s security and prosperity, we need to accept the responsibility that comes with our bounty of fresh-water. We need to treat water as the life-giving fundamental that it is, and abandon the illusion that it is the latest ticket to getting rich quick. More than oppose the mass commodification of water— something Canada should be lauded for so far doing— we need to begin actively looking for ways to put this protected wealth to good use,  to provide humanitarian support to those in need.



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This entry was posted on March 22, 2012 by in Ethics, Ecology, Sustainable Development Series.
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