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In Historic Vote, UN Declares Water a Fundamental Human Right

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The United Nations General Assembly has declared for the first time that access to clean water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. In a historic vote Wednesday, 122 countries supported the resolution, and over forty countries abstained from voting, including the United States, Canada and several European and other industrialized countries. There were no votes against the resolution. We speak with longtime water justice activist, Maude Barlow. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The United Nations General Assembly has declared for the first time that access to clean water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. In an historic vote Wednesday, 122 countries supported the resolution, and over forty countries abstained from voting, including the United States, Canada and several European and other industrialized countries. There were no votes against the resolution.

Nearly one billion people lack clean drinking water, and over two-and-a-half billion do not have basic sanitation.

Bolivia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Pablo Solon, introduced the resolution at the General Assembly Wednesday.

    PABLO SOLON: [translated] At the global level, approximately one out of every eight people do not have drinking water. In just one day, more than 200 million hours of the time used by women is spent collecting and transporting water for their homes. The lack of sanitation is even worse, because it affects 2.6 billion people, which represents 40 percent of the global population. According to the report of the World Health Organization and of UNICEF of 2009, which is titled “Diarrhoea: Why Children Are [Still] Dying and What We Can Do,” every day 24,000 children die in developing countries due to causes that can be prevented, such as diarrhea, which is caused by contaminated water. This means that a child dies every three-and-a-half seconds. One, two, three. As they say in my village, the time is now.

AMY GOODMAN: Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solon, urging support for the resolution Bolivia introduced recognizing access to clean water and sanitation as a fundamental human right.

For more on this historic vote, we’re joined now here in New York by longtime water justice advocate Maude Barlow. She’s the chair of the Council of Canadians, co-founder of the Blue Planet Project and board chair of Food and Water Watch. Last year she served as senior adviser on water to the President of the United Nations General Assembly.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MAUDE BARLOW: So glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of this. If you asked people in this country, they would have no idea this has passed.

MAUDE BARLOW: I know, I know, which is why you matter, I just have to say. This is very, very distressing to know something this important happened and it’s been blanketed. There’s no media here; it’s just like it didn’t happen. It’s had media in other places.

There’s no human — there has been on human right to water. It wasn’t included in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. And then, more recently, when people have realized that it needed to happen, there were very powerful forces against it — powerful countries, powerful corporate interests and so on. But Ambassador Solon and a number of developing countries decided that they were going to move this, countries from the Global South, that they were going to move this through, and they just tabled it a month ago, and yesterday, at the vote at the United Nations, they won. Not one country had the guts to stand against them, even though lots of them wanted to do it.

And basically, for the first time, the United Nations General Assembly debated the right to water and sanitation — it’s very important both were included — and acknowledged and recognized the right of every human being on earth to water and sanitation. And this matters because — as you know, because we’ve talked so many times — we are running — a planet running out of water. Brand new World Bank study says that the demand is going to exceed supply by 40 percent in twenty years. It’s just a phenomenal statement. And the human suffering behind that is just unbelievable. And what this did was basically say that the United Nations has decided it’s not going to let huge populations leave them behind as this crisis unfolds, that the new priority is to be given to these populations without water and sanitation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the countries that abstained, could you talk about — did any of them talk about why they were not voting “yes,” or did they just remain quiet?

MAUDE BARLOW: Oh, it was the usual gang. It was the United States and Canada, the European — not the European Union — the United Kingdom — some of the European countries voted to abstain; some were wonderful — Australia, New Zealand. So it was all of the Anglophone, neoliberal, you know, bought into this whole agenda that everything is to be commodified, countries who are able to continue to supply clean water to their citizens, which makes it doubly appalling that they would deny the right to water to the billions of people who are suffering right now.

They used procedural language about this and that. There’s another process in Geneva with the Human Rights Council, which we support, and they used the excuse that we have to wait for that. But that’s a long-term process, and it could or could not end in something very specific. So they just cut through it. A bunch of brave countries from the Global South said, “We can’t wait. We need this now.” And it’s not a surprise that it came from Bolivia, because, remember, Bolivia is suffering double whammy with a, you know, dearth of water, dearth of clean water, but also melting glaciers from climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go back to Bolivia. I want to go back to Bolivia’s UN representative, Ambassador Pablo Solon, at a speech he gave in Toronto, the event that you organized, Maude, last month, shortly before the G20 meetings. He outlined the need to support a UN declaration on the human right to water, referencing the long struggle for water rights in Bolivia, which successfully fought against Bechtel’s water privatization efforts ten years ago.

    PABLO SOLON: In those days, I was a water warrior. Now I’m a water warrior ambassador. We have to have water declared as a human right in the UN. It is not possible to see that we have declared in the UN food, the right to food, the right to health, the right to education, the right to shelter, the right to development, but not the right to water. And we all know that without water, we can’t live. So nobody can argue that it’s not a basic and fundamental and universal human right. But even though, until now, it’s not recognized as a human right. So, we have presented, two weeks ago, a draft resolution so that this coming month, in July, we expect to have a vote in the General Assembly of the United Nations. And we want to see which countries are going to vote against that resolution. We want to go to vote to see which governments are going to say to the humanity that water is not a human right.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solon, speaking in Toronto. Which nations are not going to say that water is a human right? Well, you said the United States didn’t vote for this. Canada didn’t, though they didn’t vote against. What is their rationale?

MAUDE BARLOW: Well, it depends on the country. The United Kingdom says they “don’t want to pay for the toilets in Africa.” That’s a direct quote from somebody who wouldn’t be quoted, from a senior diplomat in the government of Great Britain, that was in — quoted in a Canadian paper.

Canada hides behind the false statement that we might have to share our water, sell our water to the United States, which is nonsense. We’re in way more danger from NAFTA, which declares water to be a commodity.

The United States, as you know, has not been supporting rights regimes for decades now, so this is just a continuation. And I have to tell you, listening to the statement from the United States yesterday at the United Nations, I wouldn’t have thought there was any difference between George Bush and Barack Obama’s administrations. It was haughty language. They scolded Bolivia. Bolivia came under a lot of heat, a lot of insults yesterday from these countries.

New Zealand and Australia are both going private. Australia has privatized its water totally, and basically it’s now for sale. And there’s a big American investment firm that’s actually buying up water rights. It was supposed to be, originally, just to get the farmers of the big farm conglomerates to share, to trade, but now it’s all gone private and international, so they’re hardly going to support something that says that water, you know, is a human right, when they’ve commodified it and said it’s a market commodity.

So, really, what you’re seeing is a split between those countries that see water as a public trust, although that wasn’t in the language of the legislation, but that see water as a public trust and a human right and that should belong to all, as opposed to those who are going to move to a market model. And I think that’s the truth behind what happened.

And it’s very important for you to know that they did not allow the inclusion of the words “access to,” and that was one of the demands. I think some of those countries would have said yes to something that said “access to.” And it’s very important. It’s not semantic, because if you say you have access to it, then all the country — all the government has to do is provide you access. Then they can charge you, or they can have a private company come in and deliver it and charge you. And if you can’t afford it, they provided you access, it’s not their fault if you can’t pay it. So it’s very important that Bolivia and the other sponsoring countries held on to the language of the human right to drinking water and sanitation. They wouldn’t drop sanitation. They wouldn’t add the words “access to.” And those were the sticking points.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in practical terms, what will be the impact of this resolution on those efforts to continue to commodify or privatize water supplies in countries around the world, especially in the third world?

MAUDE BARLOW: It’s a fight we’re in. You know, I’m not going to say that suddenly everything is going to be fine tomorrow or today, today being the day after the vote, that anybody woke up in a different situation today, anybody had more water today than they did yesterday, or more access to sanitation.

What it is is a moral statement, a guiding principle, of the countries of the world — and basically the UN is the closest thing we have to a global parliament — that they have taken a step in a direction of saying that water is a human right and a public trust and that no one should be dying for lack of water, and they shouldn’t have to watch their children die a horrible death for lack of water because they cannot pay. And that was a statement that has taken us years and years to get the UN — they hadn’t even debated the water issue. They hadn’t even debated it in the past. They’ve done all this work on climate and absolutely no work on water. So it was a huge step forward to establishing some principles that we need if we are to avoid the crisis that I honestly see coming, that I think is going to be worse than anybody can imagine, in terms of the suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: Maude Barlow, talk about the connection between lack of water and global warming. June 2010 is the hottest June ever recorded on earth.

MAUDE BARLOW: Yeah, two connections. One is that climate change from greenhouse gas emissions and other causes is impacting water. So it’s melting glaciers. It’s melting ice packs, so that places like the Great Lakes don’t have the thick ice pack that they used to, so that the evaporation takes place more quickly. The water is eroding and evaporating far too quickly. So we know that global warming is having an impact on water. Conversely, our thinking that water is just a resource for our convenience and our profit has made us act as if there’s no tomorrow with water, so we move it all over the place. We take big pipes, and we move water from aquifers and watersheds, where it is maintaining a healthy hydrologic cycle, maintaining the rain cycle, maintaining vegetation that’s needed for the retention of water in the soil, and we move it to grow crops we shouldn’t in deserts. We move massive amounts of water into huge cities. And when they’re finished with it, they dump it in the ocean as garbage. A colleague in — a scientist colleague in Slovakia who estimates that we send — trying to do the math from liters to gallons —

AMY GOODMAN: And we have ten seconds.

MAUDE BARLOW: Trillions and trillions of gallons of water from land-based systems into the ocean every year. So we’ve got to change. This resolution is the first step towards a different attitude, towards nature and towards one another.

AMY GOODMAN: And this UN resolution that’s just been passed says water is a basic human right, we will link to at [draft resolution]. Maude Barlow, thank you very much, head of the Council of Canadians, considered the most important water justice activist in the world. Thanks so much.

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