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The wrongs and rights of 'watsan'

By Darryl D'Monte

Why has it taken so many years for the UN to pass a resolution on water and sanitation as a human right? Why did countries like the US, UK and Canada oppose such a resolution, leaving it to Bolivia, which has experienced the negative impact of privatisation of water, to propose the resolution and the poorest nations to support it?

Anyone who imagines that conceding the human right to water and sanitation as a basic necessity would be relatively easier than, say, the right to food or livelihood or elimination of discrimination on the basis of gender, colour or community, may be in for a bit of a surprise. With virtually no public attention, the UN passed a resolution to this effect only in July this year. Regrettably, the US, Canada and UK were among the few major countries that resisted it and numbered among the 40 which abstained. No country, given the fundamental nature of this provision, opposed the resolution.

The abstentions could have something to do with the argument that entitlements should not be confused with rights. Neo-liberals, in fact, believe that major EU countries are in the doldrums because of an excessively liberal social security system. Although of course they actually ought to ask themselves whether it is this humane system or the speculation of the elite in housing, other (‘sub-prime’) assets, and financial securities that is responsible for the mess.

The right to water and sanitation or ‘watsan’, as experts in this sector abbreviate the duo, has had a tortuous history. It began with the UN General Assembly passing a resolution affirming the right to development in 1999. This world body designated 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater, marking another step towards achieving the goal. 2005 to 2015, again perhaps known only to those engaged in this sector, was International Decade for Action – ‘Water for Life’. 2008 was marked as International Year for Sanitation, which was difficult to designate since sanitation is only a priority of the poorest countries, although these have-nots comprise four out of every 10 people in the world today.

India has no reason to feel sanctimonious about the refusal of Anglo-North American countries to toe the line. Although it is the most populous democratic country in the world, its role in pushing through the resolution was conspicuous by its absence. It is reminiscent of, for instance, India’s refusal to sign the resolution banning the use of land mines, not to mention a handful of other abhorrent practices it refuses to oppose. It was left mainly to some of the tiniest and poorest island and African countries to do the job, beginning -- in alphabetical order -- with Antigua, Bahrain and Bangladesh and ending with Vanuatu, Venezuela and Yemen. As many as 122 countries, including India, supported it.

Bolivia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Pablo Solon, who moved the resolution, put it succinctly: “At the global level, approximately one out of every eight people does not have drinking water. In just one day, more than 200 million hours of the time used by women is spent collecting and transporting water for their homes. The lack of sanitation is even worse, because it affects 2.6 billion people, which represents 40% of the global population. According to the  World Health Organisation and Unicef report of 2009 titled Diarrhoea: Why Children Are (Still) Dying and What We Can Do, every day, 24,000 children die in developing countries due to causes that can be prevented, such as diarrhoea, which is caused by contaminated water. This means that a child dies every 3.5 seconds. One, two, three. As they say in my village, the time is now.”

There is hardly an iota of doubt that sanitation is “nobody’s child”. Because of the stigma and shame attached to it, not least in a predominantly caste-ridden Hindu country, it has remained outside the purview of decisionmakers. It took the genius of Gandhiji to put it on the nation’s agenda, but, like so many other social reforms he championed, it was paid lip-service and put on the backburner. It is only in recent years, with the Total Sanitation Campaign and the Nirmal Gram Puruskar which awards villages that are “open-defecation-free” (to use the official jargon) with cash and a visit to Delhi to receive the prize at the hands of the President, no less. Even in a state like Haryana, which has the worst sex ratio in the country, women have taken the lead in getting a toilet installed in their village homes. While rewards act as a good incentive, there is some apprehension that villages that get rid of the habit of defecating in the open sometimes lapse, somewhat like the Total Literacy campaign elsewhere.

As for putting sanitation on the international agenda, it began with the inclusion of sanitation, along with drinking water, as a UN Millennium Development Goal. The objective is to halve the number of people without sanitation -- 2.6 billion people, most of them in South Asia and this country specifically -- and half that number without access to potable water, by 2015, which is barely five all-too-short years away. Here too there was a struggle to get sanitation included. Among others, it was an Indian, Gourisankar Ghosh, who headed the multi-stakeholder organisation known as the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (it is better known by its very successful WASH global campaign -- an acronym for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene For All). While there are powerful corporate interests in the water sector, like Veolia of France, Thames Water of the UK, and RWE of Germany, which have a stake in providing water, sanitation is still not perceived as a sector where private interests play as large a role. But these companies are slowly making inroads into India. In Mumbai, for example, the tongue-twister much-delayed drainage project known as BRIMSTOWAD has had consultants like Watson Hawksley from Britain.

In an interview with Democracy Now!, a daily TV and radio programme in the US, the well-known activist Maude Barlow, a familiar figure at international meetings on water, like the World Water Forum, explained the reasons for opposition to the recent UN resolution conceding watsan as a human right. Barlow chairs the Council of Canadians, is co-founder of the Blue Planet Project and board chair of Food and Water Watch. Last year, she served as senior adviser on water to the president of the UN General Assembly.

She noted that the human right to water wasn’t included in the Declaration of Human Rights, after World War II, in 1948. Undoubtedly no one, six decades ago, had the faintest idea that water would be such a scarce and precious commodity; sanitation wasn’t on anyone’s agenda at the time. Barlow alleges that “there were very powerful forces against it -- powerful countries, powerful corporate interests and so on”. As we have seen, huge multinationals are making millions securing the right to manage and/or sell water, which was previously handled by public utilities. Once the right to sanitation is more universally acknowledged, it is only a matter of time before these companies and consultants jump into the fray.

Asked who opposed the UN resolution, Barlow replied that it was “the usual gang”. It was the US, Canada and the UK -- not the European Union, but some European countries voted to abstain. Australia and New Zealand -- the former always votes with the US on climate change at UN meets -- were supportive, for a change. According to Barlow: “It was all of the Anglophone, neo-liberal (countries) you know (which) bought into this whole agenda that everything is to be commodified, countries which are able to continue to supply clean water to their citizens, which makes it doubly appalling that they would deny the right to water to the billions of people who are suffering right now.

“They used procedural language about this and that. There’s another process in Geneva with the Human Rights Council, which we support, and they used the excuse that we have to wait for that. But that’s a long-term process, and it could or could not end in something very specific. So they just cut through it. A bunch of brave countries from the Global South said: ‘We can’t wait. We need this now’. And it’s not a surprise that it came from Bolivia, because remember, Bolivia is suffering a double whammy with dearth of water, dearth of clean water, but also melting glaciers from climate change.”

Barlow alleged that her native country abstained because it hid behind the false argument that once the right to water was conceded, Canada might be forced to sell its water to the US. This is obviously a canard, since no one can force any country to sell its water. In fact, she noted, a bigger threat was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which recognises water as a commodity, therefore tradeable. The UK also argued that the human right to defecate, to put it indelicately, might require it to “pay for toilets in Africa,” which is another shibboleth. Such unprincipled opposition is common in resistance over conceding other human rights, like that of food and livelihood, not only from neo-liberal countries but even in India and other developing countries. (In any case, in certain African slums like Soweto in Johannesburg there is widespread use of the “flying toilet”: excrement is simply deposited in a plastic bag which is flung out of sight. No foreign aid required…)

Interestingly, those who championed the resolution resisted the attempt to include the words ‘access to’ in relation to water. This seemingly innocuous phrase, they felt, was loaded because it could be construed to mean that even private companies, or public-private partnerships, could fit the bill in providing ‘access’ to water services, albeit for a fee that is subject to constant upward revision. The price for not being able to pay is being cut off from the service. This was the case when South Africa guaranteed a minimum quota of 25 litres of potable water per day to every citizen, which, on the face of it, was a progressive step forward. But it had hidden implications. Everyone, including the poorest of the poor, had a meter installed in the house to provide this service, but when they exceeded the minimum and defaulted, the service was cut off. Critics allege that a cholera epidemic in the country had its origins in this engineered shortage.

It is by no means coincidental that Bolivia took the lead in sponsoring the resolution. Exactly a decade ago, Cochabamba, the country’s third largest city, had its water supply privatised -- a condition laid down by the World Bank for renewing a $ 25 million loan. Aguas del Tunari was a consortium led by International Water Limited from the UK, the utility firm Edison from Italy, Bechtel Enterprise Holdings from the US, and the engineering and construction firm Abengoa from Spain. (Bechtel, incidentally, was, for a few decades after the 1960s, barred from operating in India when it was part of an abortive US government-sponsored initiative to build a chain of fertiliser plants; the quotation was found to be excessively high and the deal was called off.) The Bolivian consortium raised water rates excessively and people took to the streets, forcing the contract to be terminated. It was largely due to this and similar protests elsewhere that the World Bank has now revised its policy and does not promote the privatisation of this most precious resource, in developing countries.

Barlow concluded her interview with: “It is a moral statement, a guiding principle, of the countries of the world -- and basically the UN is the closest thing we have to a global parliament -- that they have taken a step in the direction of saying that water is a human right and a public trust and that no one should be dying for lack of water, and they shouldn’t have to watch their children die a horrible death for lack of water because they cannot pay. And that was a statement that has taken us years and years to get to the UN -- they hadn’t even debated the water issue. They hadn’t even debated it in the past. They’ve done all this work on climate and absolutely no work on water. So it was a huge step forward to establishing some principles that we need if we are to avoid the crisis that I honestly see coming, that I think is going to be worse than anybody can imagine, in terms of the suffering.” 

Infochange News & Features, September 2010