“ON JULY 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted an historic resolution recognizing the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as “essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.” For those of us in the balcony of the General Assembly that day, the air was tense. A number of powerful countries had lined up to oppose it, so it had to be put to a vote. The Bolivian ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solón, introduced the resolution by reminding the assembly that humans are composed of about two-thirds water and that our blood flows like a network of rivers to transport nutrients and energy through our bodies. “Water is life,” he said.
Then he laid out the story of the number of people around the world who were dying from lack of access to clean water and quoted a new World Health Organization study on diarrhea showing that, every three and a half seconds in the developing world, a child dies of waterborne disease. Ambassador Solón then quietly snapped his fingers three times and held his small finger up for a half-second. The General Assembly of the United Nations fell silent. Moments later, it voted overwhelmingly to recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. The floor erupted in cheers.
The recognition by the General Assembly of these rights represented a breakthrough in the struggle for water justice in the world. It followed years of hard work and was a key platform of our global water justice movement for at least two decades. For me personally, it was the culmination of many years of work, and I was proud and grateful to all who had helped make it happen.
But our work is far from over. Recognizing a right is simply the first step in making it a reality for the millions who are living in the shadow of the greatest crisis of our era. With our insatiable demand for water, we are creating the perfect storm for an unprecedented world water crisis: a rising population and an unrelenting demand for water by industry, agriculture, and the developed world; over-extraction of water from the world’s finite water stock; climate change, spreading drought; and income disparity between and within countries, with the greatest burden of the race for water falling on the poor.
“Suddenly it is so clear: the world is running out of fresh water.” These were the opening words of my 2002 book, Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (co-written with Tony Clarke), which warned of a mighty contest brewing over the world’s dwindling freshwater supplies. As water became the oil of the twenty-first century, we predicted, a water cartel would emerge to lay claim to the planet’s freshwater resources. This has come true. But so has our prediction that a global water justice movement would emerge to challenge the “lords of water.”
In my 2007 book, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, I described the growing water cartel and its relentless drive to find ways to take control of the world’s water supplies. I also reported on the amazing work of the environmentalists, human rights activists, indigenous and women’s groups, small farmers, peasants, and thousands of grassroots communities that make up the global water justice movement fighting for the right to water and to keep water under public and democratic control. In the six years since Blue Covenant was published, much has been accomplished. Reports on the crisis are commonplace in mainstream media and the classroom. Books, films, and music move millions to action. The United Nations, other global institutions, and many universities are also sounding the alarm. A movement has coalesced to provide water and sanitation to the urban and rural poor, with mixed, but hopeful, results.
Yet in those same years the water crisis dramatically deepened. It is now accepted that, with the unexpected growth in both population and new consumer classes in almost every country, global demand for water in 2030 will outstrip supply by 40 percent. A report from the U.S. global intelligence agencies warns that one-third of the world’s people will live in basins where the deficit is more than 50 percent. Five hundred scientists from around the world met in Bonn in May 2013 at the invitation of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and sent out a warning that our abuse of water has caused the planet to enter a “new geologic age.” They likened this “planetary transformation” to the retreat of the glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. Within the space of two generations, the majority of people on the planet will face serious water shortages and the world’s water systems will reach a tipping point that could trigger irreversible change, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Already, the world-renowned scientists said, a majority of the world’s people live within 50 kilometres of an impaired water source — one that is running dry or polluted.
The stage is being set for drought on an unprecedented scale, for mass starvation and the migration of millions of water refugees leaving parched lands to look for water. All the justice and awareness in the world cannot stave off this future if the water is not there.
Open any textbook on water and you will see the numbers: how many children die every day; where the water tables have dried up; how aquifers are being depleted. Yet we continue to extract from our precious rivers and lakes and pump our groundwater, using the last of a finite supply of water that will be needed if future generations and other species are to survive.
Amazingly, most of our political leaders ignore the water crisis and create policy. decisions as if there were no end to water supplies. They continue to be captives of an economic framework that promotes unlimited growth, unregulated trade, and bigger and more powerful (and increasingly self-governing) transnational corporations, all of which hasten the destruction of our supplies of fresh water. Somewhere between the hard truths about the world’s water crisis and this perplexing denial on the part of political and corporate leaders, millions — soon to be billions — struggle to deal with disappearing watersheds.
The story does not need to end in tragedy. There are solutions to our water crisis and a path to a just and water-secure world. To get to this place, however, we must establish principles to guide us and help us create policies, laws, and international agreements to protect water and water justice, now and forever. This book puts forward four principles for a water-secure future. Principle one, “Water Is a Human Right,” addresses the current reality of water inequality and lays out a road map to fixing the problem. Principle two, “Water Is a Common Heritage,” argues that water is not like running shoes or cars and must not be allowed to become a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. Principle three, “Water Has Rights Too,” makes the case for protection of source water and watershed governance and the need to make our human laws compatible with those of nature if we are to survive. The fourth principle, “Water Can Teach Us How to Live Together,” is a cry from the heart to come together around a common threat — the end of clean water — and find a way to live more lightly on this planet.
The grab for the planet’s dwindling resources is the defining issue of our time. Water is not a resource put here solely for our convenience, pleasure, and profit; it is the source of all life. It is urgent that we clarify the values and principles needed to protect the planet’s fresh water. I offer this book as a guide.”
MAUDE BARLOW, Blue Planet. Introduction.
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