(ANS – United Nations – July 27) – On Wednesday, July 18, the Salesians of Don Bosco co-sponsored an event on the human right to water with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the Sisters of Mercy, Blue Planet Project, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and Public Services International. The event, entitled “Defining the Value of Water from a Rights-Based Perspective,” was part of the UN’s 2018 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). The panelists spoke of the ways that water is valued in communities, cultures, and faiths around the world.
This event was one of a series of collaborative efforts that the Salesians have organized to raise the consciousness of governments, U.N. agencies, and civil society groups about the essential role that water plays in the attainment of all human rights. The human right to water was explicitly noted in the preamble to the Sustainable Development Goals, the only human right explicitly noted in the SDGs, largely through the efforts of the partnership of the faith-based groups, Blue Planet Project, and Ambassador Caleb Otto from the Pacific island nation of Palau during the SDG negotiations.
In his opening remarks, Nicholas Anton of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese quoted Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, no. 30, on the human right to water:
Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt toward the poor who lack access to drinking water because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services to the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries that possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behavior within a context of great inequality (emphasis in the original).
As water has become increasingly scarce and commodified, hundreds of millions of people around the world are denied access to water. And since HLPF 2018 reviewed the progress in achieving SDG 6: Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, those who have worked on water justice issues for years sought to remind the participants of the human right to water and the inherent dignity of all people. It has become increasingly clear, and troubling, that the implementation strategies promoted by international financial institutions have placed a heavy focus on private investment and for-profit delivery of essential services to provide basic human necessities like water and sanitation. This has led to systemic human rights violations and deepened the very inequalities the SDGs seek to combat.
Participants were reminded that water injustice has become acceptable practice in many places. The specific example of the immoral treatment of the people of Flint, Michigan, who were cut off from access to clean water and were forced to use contaminated and dangerous water without free and prior information before the change was effected was highlighted. The shutting off of water to homes in arrears on payment without seeking a solution to the problem was also noted. Both policies, initiated as cost-savings programs, violated the rights and dignity of the involved citizens and told them that they don’t matter. A call was made to involve local communities in the decisions that affect their lives, especially when their human rights and dignity are intimately involved in the decisions. Issues of income inequality and the need for a just and living wage are elements of a policy that will ensure that there is an enabling environment for protecting the human right to water. Investing in people by investing in infrastructure for the delivery of water and providing sanitation is more important than increasing profit margins.
The Global Water Justice Movement views water as part of the public trust, an essential part of the shared commons. Mobilizing local communities to protect the human right to water protects access to this essential resource for us all. Protecting access to clean, safe water and setting up affordability mechanisms to protect the most vulnerable populations is a moral imperative.