Access to Water: A Fundamental Human Right

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The goal in Canada should be to ensure that everyone in the country has a safe, reliable, public drinking water supply. Like healthcare, such supply should be part of the social contract we have with our governments. Sufficient supplies of free or low-cost water must be guaranteed for basic individual human needs and to meet nature’s needs. A new water ethic in Canada would demand this as one of the conditions government must fulfill on behalf of those it governs, in exchange for the latter’s acceptance of being governed.

Beyond the Level of Individual Need, the Use of Water Is a Privilege, not a Right

While it will be important to explore variable pricing instruments to encourage water conservation, the pricing of the delivery of water must be structured in such a way that it acknowledges a fundamental human right to enough water for individual needs and does not discriminate in any way against the poor.

That said, governments should not be permitted to lose control of pricing nor to lose control of or give away the right to use water on a permanent basis. Since the use of water over and above personal needs is to be considered a privilege and not a right, pricing that is specifically related to the cost of this privilege must be clearly identified as being completely exclusive of the cost of the water itself. To achieve the goals of a new Canadian water ethic, water must remain a common good subject to the principles of public trust and fiduciary. And while some aspects of the treatment and delivery of water may under certain circumstance be granted to others, the use, control and protection of water must be held firmly in the control of government, for which the government must be fully, immediately and transparently accountable.

The management and protection of water in Canada must be seen as a centuries-long project on which the foundation of our society depends for its stability and sustainability. Water has to be managed for the long term, not just for the term of office of a given party or leader or during the heyday of a single industry or economic activity. This means we cannot tolerate sectors or interests that try to bully a government or the public into believing that the privilege of using water should be granted to them as a right just because of their economic influence at a given moment in history. Neither can we continue to tolerate the special pleading so damaging to our water resources that is so much a part of contemporary political lobbying.

No government should be allowed to lose control of water within its jurisdiction as a result of lack of regulation of permits granted for the privilege of using water. We should not allow markets or exchanges in which financial investments could be made that would make it unduly difficult or impossible to restore water use to the public trust. Similarly, we should not permit alienation of the privilege of using water to such an extent that the public no longer has effective control over its use. Neither should water rights ever be granted on such terms as to suggest that the privilege of using water for any given purpose is permanent and unfettered by government control. There are limits to the extent to which access to water can be both a human right and an economic good.  Given the uncertainties of future water supply and quality, we should never allow private interests to use the considerable political means at their disposal to transform a contingent water use privilege into a permanent property right.

Bottled Water Is Not a Solution

In many political and most corporate circles in Canada, it is widely held that the marketplace will take care of the country’s growing water woes. There is no evidence, however, that this is happening – or will happen – to the extent required for achieving sustainability. Nor is there any evidence from international example that suggests market instruments alone address water supply or quality issues in any enduring way. Without government control and oversight, markets tend to take care of themselves first and do not always solve the problems they were directed through public policy to address.

The classic example of how market-based solutions drive us to do  everything  available to us except actually address the problem is bottled water. There are places in the world where bottled water is necessary and, because of local water quality, likely always will be. In the developed world, however, the marketplace success of bottled water is a triumph of marketing over common sense and appropriate action.

We have allowed ourselves to be convinced through subtle and not so subtle manipulation of our desires to pay thousands of times more for what we already get almost for free. The irony is that we drink bottled water even though billions are being spent to ensure that the quality of our public drinking water is the best in the world. Meanwhile, a billion people on earth cannot afford reliable public water supplies or bottled water, and we say we can’t afford to help them. If the $100-billion a year we spend on bottled water were committed instead to addressing the global water supply and sanitation crisis, there would be little need for bottled water in most parts of the world within a decade.

In Bottled & Sold, his landmark work  on the story behind our obsession with bottled water, Peter Gleick argues that the world is in the midst of a major transition which he fears could be marked by the abandonment of our efforts to provide public drinking water for all, in favour of private-sector solutions.

Reprinted with permission from Ethical Water: Learning to Value What Matters Mostby Robert William Sandford and Merrell-Ann S. Phare and published by Rocky Mountain Books, 2011.

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