The Global Water Treaty

There is enough water for everyone, and now a solution to fair distribution.

by Robert Blakeney

Robert Blakeney is a BC water and sanitation Engineer who has participated in relief missions with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in South Sudan and East Timor

Water, the "source of life," has shaped the world's ecosystem, established our political boundaries, and has resulted in the rise and fall of civilizations.

As a global issue, none has the potential to affect our society, economy, and our very existence as much as water. However, more and more, we are allowing our most precious commodity to be controlled by private interests and power brokers the world over. Water is increasingly viewed as a powerful commodity to be manipulated, controlled, and even sold; often at the expense of marginalized groups. Water availability has always been a source of social and economic inequality, but today's civilizations recognize that access to water is a fundamental, inalienable individual and collective right.

Presently, 450 million people in 29 countries face water shortage problems. This figure is projected to jump to 2.5 billion people by 2050. Around 1.4 billion people live without clean drinking water. Seven million die every year from water-borne diseases. Half the world's rivers and lakes are seriously polluted, leading to the spread of infectious diseases and epidemics. Water shortage in the world has the potential to create millions of environmental refugees in the years ahead.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is an international humanitarian aid organization that provides emergency medical assistance to populations in danger in more than 80 countries. MSF is primarily concerned with access to health care for marginalized populations. This includes access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene, all of which aid in preventing the onset of water-borne disease. Diseases such as cholera can quickly become an emergency and the provision of safe water, sanitation and hygiene is essential to controlling an outbreak. In fact, 80% of infectious diseases can be linked to poor drinking water and sanitation. For more than thirty years, MSF has been providing water in emergencies for populations displaced by insecurity due to wars or natural disasters. Our emergency services are often the only source of safe water for populations.

Increasingly, though, the efforts of aid agencies have been hampered not by nature, but by man. Most disturbing is the rise in deliberate and organized prevention of access to water, in particular to marginalized groups in developing nations. The increase in water-related wars and terrorism is linked to the belief that water is a powerful instrument that can be wielded to support strategic political and economic interests. Water is a fundamental and irreplaceable "source of life" for our ecosystem, our individual and collective health, and all economic activity. As such, water belongs to all the inhabitants of the Earth in common. No one individual or group can be allowed the right to make it private property.

Just as access to medical aid is guaranteed under the Geneva Convention, so too should access to water be guaranteed under international codes.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Group of Lisbon have established the framework of a "Global Water Treaty" that hopes to address the inequities of water supply in the world. The Group is promoting the development of National Associations to launch initiatives in support of the Global Water Contract at a national level. Canada, France, Italy, Switzerland, USA, Belgium, Brazil and Japan have so far formed associations to advocate the fundamental right of access to water. MSF supports the theme of Water and Health and welcomes the WHO initiative to bring water and health into the domain of human rights.

An equitable water policy calls for decentralized, transparent management and a high degree of representation at the local, national, continental and world level.

  • At the community level, it is essential to reinstate and reinforce traditional, sustainable water harvesting practices that have suffered through insurrection and instability, institutionalization, or privatization.
  • At the level of government, a new legal framework is needed at both the local and national level to legally recognize water as a vital, intrinsic right common to all humanity.
  • At the global level, the WHO and the Group of Lisbon call for the establishment of a 'Network of Parliaments for Water' that will explore the possibility of integrated, sustainable water management and will ensure collaboration and compliance with the "Global Water Treaty" at an international level.

This treaty includes wording that excludes water from all international commercial conventions, such as those existing within the framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO). One proposal includes a 10-to-15 year moratorium on the construction of large dams, which have so far created considerable short and long-term problems for the environment and local populations. Another calls for changes to existing intensive irrigation and agriculture practices that threaten the planet's freshwater resources. "Modern" agriculture is the principal consumer of water on the planet, accounting for 70% of total world extraction. Yet, 40% of irrigation water is lost en route through leaky reservoirs and pipes and through evaporation. Industrial agriculture threatens the environment in other ways, by increasing soil salinity and by polluting surface and groundwater sources with pesticides and herbicides.

The integrated approach suggested by the WHO is encouraging and necessary. The greatest progress to ensuring access to water lies in the political arena. The use of appropriate, sustainable technologies for water supply, treatment, and conservation will also go a long way to preserving our precious, finite water source. However, it is beyond policy and technology alone to solve the world's water problems. All users have a key role to play by their choices and practices to ensure environmental, economic and societal sustainability. Creating the conditions necessary to ensure the most effective and sustainable access to water is everyone's responsibility. We all must find ways to use, valorize, protect and conserve water resources in such a way that future generations can enjoy the same freedom of action and choice that we wish for ourselves today. Key to conservation is a re-valuation of the true worth of water. The costs of supplying water are common social costs to be borne by the collective as a whole, including the negative externalities, which are not taken into account by market prices. This principle is relevant at the local, national, and international level.

But it must be recognized that putting a value on water supply could be antithetical to providing unhindered access to clean, affordable water to all of humankind. Fresh water resources are unequally distributed on the Earth, and a policy based on true environmental economics will not address the issue of providing guaranteed access to water to the world's marginalized communities and regions. To ensure equal distribution, financing must be secured through collective redistribution. The WHO proposes implementation of a progressive pricing policy that will allow a true value to be put on water while also ensuring unobstructed access to those who cannot afford to pay. In other words, pricing would apply only to water usage above that considered a vital and indispensable minimum for survival. Beyond the vital minimum, progressive pricing must be a function of the quantity used. All abuses and excesses of usage must be considered illegal and penalized. Above all, the integrated and sustainable management of water belongs in the sphere of democracy and community, not capitalism. We cannot allow the distribution of water and the distribution of wealth to be linked.

We must fight against all privatization of water resources, and against water abuses wherever they occur. Water has the potential to contribute to the strengthening of solidarity among people, communities, countries, genders, and generations – or to its division.

The choice is ours.

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[From WS August/November 2001]

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