Stories about our relationship – and challenges – with water are in the news every day. A university campus bans bottled water, Botswana bushmen win the right to re-open a well on their ancestral lands, fracking for natural gas is opposed because of threats to groundwater. Water scarcity and safety are not new issues but they continue to garner attention because clean water is universally recognized as something we all need to survive.
Canada finally did the right thing and reversed years of unsound policy last May when it formally recognized the right to water by supporting a UN World Health Assembly resolution calling on countries to improve “the realization of the human right to water and sanitation.” That resolution explicitly referenced earlier right-to-water resolutions from which Canada had abstained. In other words, Canada seemed to acknowledge that its previous position was unsound – and the source of considerable international embarrassment – and voted accordingly.
A recent editorial in the Financial Post suggests that instituting a right to water will do little to help the billion people globally who don’t have access to safe drinking water. The author is right when he says ensuring safe water is a “governance” challenge. What he fails to acknowledge is how the right to water will actually drive better governance.
Recognizing the right to water can significantly improve access to safe drinking water in several ways. Countries would have to prioritize water use for drinking water and sanitation over other competing uses (e.g., industrial uses or watering golf courses). A right to water would also force limits and regulations on polluting industries that compromise water quality. And countries would be obligated to ensure safe water and a failure to do so (such as many First Nations communities here) could make it the subject of a UN investigation or domestic court proceedings.
The right to water does not require governments to provide water for free to all citizens. Municipalities would still be able to charge for treatment and delivery of water used for drinking and sanitation. However, they may be required to make provisions for those who truly can’t pay. The issue of water pricing merits its own discussion, but the right to water itself does not prevent water used for purposes other than drinking water and sanitation (the bulk of water supplied in municipal systems) being priced at market rates or through conservation pricing models.
It’s important to note that the right to water only applies to water needed for drinking and sanitation. Those needs are a fraction of the amount used for agricultural purposes and energy production. The human right to water will not drive open-ended growth in demand. Nor would it put Canada at risk of having to export water for that purpose. No country, no matter how water-scarce, is unable to supply the small quantities of water guaranteed by right, and other countries are required to remedy another country’s mismanagement. The right is a pact between the citizens of a country and their own government, not a pact between countries.
At Ecojustice, we recognize the vital role water plays in all our lives. That’s why, every five years, we release Waterproof – our groundbreaking series of reports that examine the state of Canada’s drinking water – the latest edition of which will be released this fall.
The lack of safe drinking water in many parts of Canada – particularly in some small and First Nations communities – is unacceptable. Ensuring Canadians and our environment stay healthy can only be accomplished through adequate systems, laws and policies that protect the things we depend on for survival and well-being. Water included.