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Water: Commodity Or Human Right?

By Mary Shaw

24 March, 2009

I am writing this on March 22, World Water Day. And I am thinking about how spoiled we Americans are. We use and abuse our natural resources without giving it a second thought.

But our recklessness could soon turn around to bite us -- and the rest of the world.

When people think of water shortages, they tend to think of the Third World. And, indeed, more than 5,000 children die every day as a result of unsafe drinking water, mostly in developing nations.

But we've been seeing more and more serious droughts right here in the U.S., like in California and Georgia recently.

In short, water supplies are at serious risk everywhere.

This is the natural result of overpopulation, climate change, and the reckless consumption of our natural resources.

One of the most reckless -- and disturbing -- aspects in my opinion is the commoditization of water. Think back 20, 30, or 40 years. When you were thirsty, you turned on the kitchen faucet and poured yourself a glass of water. You thought nothing of it.

These days, I don't know many people who would drink the water from their kitchen faucet without at least filtering it first. I myself use a Brita water filter pitcher at home.

But that's not convenient enough, or glamorous enough, for some people. So they buy their drinking water in bottles. By the case. I see it flying off the shelves every time I go to the supermarket.

These same people who complained so loudly when gasoline prices hit $4 per gallon think nothing of paying $10 per gallon for their drinking water. And they won't listen to the fact that bottled water is no cleaner and no safer than tap water, and often comes from the very same sources. To them, carrying around a bottle of commercially sold water is a status symbol, just like their big, bloated, gas-guzzling SUVs. If it's expensive, then it must be better.

And, by supporting the commercialization of water -- by willfully paying corporations for something that they could otherwise get for free -- they are compounding the problem. If water is something you have to pay for, then the poor will not be able to afford it. And, without clean water, it is impossible to survive.

That's why I support the effort to add a 31st article to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which would define water as a basic human right.

Here is the text of the proposed article:

"Everyone has the right to clean and accessible water, adequate for the health and well-being of the individual and family, and no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance."

Seems fair.

But, of course, the bottled water industry will surely fight this effort tooth and nail. And, meanwhile, thousands of children will continue to die each day from lack of clean water.

Where will it end? If we willingly pay for water today, will we someday be similarly duped into paying for breathable air?

Will all of nature eventually be privatized and sold to the minority who can afford it?

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: [email protected]

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