Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dying of Thirst: Access to water is a human right

A recent report from the World Bank estimates that 700 million people in 43 countries are living under “water stress.” No, I didn’t know what that term meant but I had a good guess. GreenFacts says it occurs when “the demand for water exceeds the available amount during a certain period or when poor quality restricts its use.”

I've been thinking about access to water today because I’m at the point in my other blog, a journal of my time teaching in Africa, where I am about to describe the senseless, preventable death of someone I knew. The death shocked me when it happened 17 years ago, and its senselessness has remained in my head ever since. The man in question who passed away probably drank unsafe drinking water in his village, caught dysentery, and within a matter of days passed away. It simply didn't need to happen. We live on a planet where, according to UNICEF, lack of safe water and sanitation is the world’s single largest cause of illness. In 2002, 42 per cent of households had no toilets, and one in six people had no access to safe water. The death toll on children is especially cruel: about 4500 children die each day from unsafe drinking water and lack of basic sanitation facilities.

Governments have obligations to ensure that their citizens have sufficient and continuous access to water, that the water is of adequate quality, and that there is no discrimination in being able to access that water. (The UN’s General Comment 15 on the right to water explains what the right means in detail.) In poor countries, governments are simply not doing enough. And even if the quality of water is inadequate, there should at least be a minimum amount of health initiatives promoting alternatives to making the water potable, namely boiling the water, which is what I did for years living in Africa (and I had the rusted pots to prove it). Governments need to be more accountable for their obligations in ensuring the right to water – it’s a right like any other, and for any violation of that right, citizens should have access to the proper mechanisms to seek redress, namely through public grievance offices, national human rights, commissions, or courts.

The reality of course is not so simple. The UN suggests that a person needs a minimum of 20 litres of water per day to meet their basic needs; in some refugee camps around the world, you’d be lucky if people got a quarter of that. Internally displaced persons, like the thousands whose lives were disrupted by the earthquake in Haiti, are in desperate need of potable drinking water and an efficient mechanism for water distribution. One TV news report I saw a couple of weeks ago boasted that there was more clean water in Haiti now than there was before the earthquake. Perhaps that is so, but does everyone have access to that water?
When I read up on issues like access to water, I tend to get discouraged. I guess it comes with the job: I work on human rights issues, plenty of which are sad reminders of our inadequacy as a collective humanity to improve the lives of those who are suffering, even if they are strangers. Thankfully it often takes the small and courageous actions of a few people to restore hope: Here’s an example of an NGO helping to install water chlorinators in communities in Haiti. What’s cool is that they specified on their website the GPS coordinates of the communities.

While NGOs and civil society in general can do a lot to help promote proper access to water, I think there could be a fair bit of awareness-raising on the other end for consumers who spend an astounding amount of water. Canada, I’m afraid to admit, is one of the worst offenders. An OECD (Organization for Economic and Co-operation Development) report shows that my country is a dismal 28th out of 29 countries among per capita consumption of water use. What can average Canadians do to bring this number down? As one student said to me last year, “Take shorter showers.” That’s good – if everyone took showers that were half as long, I’m sure we’d make a difference. But as Thomas Friedman mentions in Hot, Flat, and Crowded (I’m paraphrasing here): if you’re going to make a difference to improve the environment, it’s going to hurt. Change isn’t easy. He scoffs at the supermarket magazines with covers offering “10 easy tips to save the environment” – saving the environment is intricately linked to ensuring access to water for all, is not and likely never will be “easy.”

Access to water is another example of a human rights issue where there is tremendous disparity in how the right is realized, respected, and even understood among those who have no water to consume and those who have an abundance of it coupled with little appreciation for this precious commodity. Nobody should die from thirst, or from drinking polluted water, it just doesn’t make sense. But there you go, in the time I wrote this, about 200 children around the world died because of unsafe drinking water. When do statistics become so horrifying that we will actually move to action?

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