Water As Public Good,
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights
issued a statement Wednesday declaring access to water a human right
and stating that water is a social and cultural good, not merely an
The Committee stressed that
the 145 countries that have ratified the International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights are now obligated to progressively ensure
access to clean water, "equitably and without discrimination".
Wednesday's declaration by
the Committee took the form of a "General Comment", which
is the mechanism for providing interpretation of the Covenant.
Prior to the adoption of
the document, representatives from the public sector, private enterprise
and independent institutions engaged in debate that focused on ownership
of water resources and the appropriateness of privatizing production
and distribution systems.
The final version of the
General Comment omitted opinions on privatization because the members
of the Committee agreed "not to politicize the issue," said
one of its members, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, the statement does
clearly define the public nature of water as "a limited natural
resource and a public commodity fundamental to life and health."
Shortly after the UN Committee
on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights announced its decision Wednesday,
the World Health Organization (WHO) issued its own statement, calling
the General Comment "an unprecedented step".
WHO director-general Gro
Harlem Brundtland said the declaration of water as a human right "is
a major boost in efforts to achieve the (UN General Assembly's) Millennium
Development Goals of halving the number of people without access to
water and sanitation by 2015 -- two pre-requisites for health."
"The human right to
water entitles everyone to sufficient, affordable, physically accessible,
safe and acceptable water for personal and domestic uses," states
the Committee document.
"While uses vary between
cultures, an adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death
from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease and to
provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements."
The Committee is made up
of 18 human rights experts who are designated by the member governments
but act in an independent capacity.
The announcement comes ahead
of the 2003 celebration of the International Year of Freshwater, declared
by the UN.
The Committee's General Comment
will be presented to the third World Water Forum and Ministerial Conference
to take place in March in the Japanese city of Kyoto.
Eibe Riedel, a German national,
serving as the Committee's rapporteur on water, said analysis of the
issue generally has been conducted from the perspective of individual
consequences, without attending to the role of government.
Nor were transnational waters
or irrigation regulations considered, he said.
Among the figures cited in
the Committee debate were that 1.1 billion people in the world do not
have regular access to clean water and some 2.4 billion do not have
adequate sanitation or sewerage.
By 2025, some 3.0 billion
people will suffer the effects of water shortages, predicts El-Hadji
Guissé, special rapporteur on water rights for the UN Subcommission
on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights.
Guissé laments that
water has become a commodity that is "sold to the highest bidder,"
and the way water is managed, he said, is subject "to the laws
In his country, Senegal,
water services were privatized and are now owned by a French consortium.
Now, says Guissé, the country has less water available and it
is of worse quality than before.
The same situation has emerged
in other African nations, where transnational corporations have acquired
water reservoirs, motivated only by profit, he says.
Jean Ziegler, the UN Commission
on Human Rights special rapporteur for the right to food, noted the
experience of the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, where water service rates
doubled after privatization
Massive protests in 1999
in the streets of Cochabamba forced the government to revise its policy
on ownership of water distribution services, stressed Ziegler.
In contrast, Jack Moss, representing
the private firm Suez, which specializes in the exploitation of water
services, said during the debate, according to the UN, that "measures
to privatize water services could be considered a 'mass salvation against
want of water'."
Simon Walker, an expert from
the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted the tendency
of some governments "to put pressure on others to privatize some
of their public sectors."
These states party to international
agreements have no obligation to do so, he added.
Mireille Cosy, spokeswoman
for the World Trade Organization (WTO), clarified that the body's Agreement
on Trade in Services does not require privatization or deregulation
of any water service activities.
The UN Committee on Economic,
Cultural and Social Rights consists of Eibe Riedel (Germany), Mahmoud
Samir Ahmed (Egypt), Clement Atanga (Cameroon), Rocio Barahona Riera
(Costa Rica) Virginia Bonoan-Dandan (Philippines - current Chair), Dumitru
Ceausu (Romania), Abdessatar Grissa (Tunisia), Paul Hunt (New Zealand),
Yuri Kolosov (Russia), Giorgio Malinverni (Switzerland) and Jaime Marchán
Rounding out the list are
Sergei Martynov (Belarus), Ariranga Govindasamy Pillay (Mauricio), Kenneth
Osborne Rattray (Jamaica), Walid M. Sa'di (Jordan), Philippe Texier
(France), Nutan Thapalia (Nepal), and Javier Wimer Zambrano (Mexico).
According to the General
Comment, "realization of the right (to water) should be feasible
and practicable, since all states parties exercise control over a broad
range of resources, including water, technology, financial resources
and international assistance, as with all other rights in the Covenant."