Yesterday, the United Nations adopted a resolution proclaiming the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. Presented by Bolivia and 33 other States, the resolution that would “entitle everyone to available, safe, acceptable, accessible and affordable water and sanitation” received 122 votes in favour with no votes against and 41 abstentions—including Canada.

Long-time advocates for the resolution include Maude Barlow, national chairwoman of the Council of Canadians. She told Canadian papers that the organization is “absolutely thrilled. This is a historic day and I think every now and then, the human species advances somewhat in our evolution and today was one of them.”

She did, however, lament Canada’s choice to abstain. “I was very sad that my country wouldn’t have felt they needed to vote on this historic day in favour,” Barlow said. “They abstained and gave no reason and that was the only bad and sad note for us.”

Many sources have since weighed in.

While positive about the resolution, Mikhail Gorbachev says it’s not an instant “silver bullet” solution. “This right must be enshrined in national laws, and upholding it must be a top priority,” said the founding president of Green Cross International in today’s press release.

The federal government’s position was clarified in a statement on Wednesday from Melissa Lantsman, press secretary for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. “We continue to assert that international human rights obligations in no way limit our sovereign right to manage our own resources,” Lantsman said. “We remain of the view that the general right to water is not codified under international human rights law and … currently there’s no international consensus among states regarding the existence, scope or content of a possible right to water. Canada alongside (40) others, abstained in that regard.”

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Back in Water Canada’s November/December 2009 issue, environmental law professor Bruce Pardy provided three arguments along the same lines:

…to declare [water] as an international human right has at least three flaws. First, like numerous other declarations of universal rights, it is unlikely to make much of an improvement to the situation on the ground. Second, the declaration could be interpreted as obligating governments to supply their populations with clean water for free—which in arid areas of the world is the best way to ensure that there is not enough to go around. Third, it could be seen to create or reflect an international obligation on the part of water-rich countries to supply others. Countries like Canada might thus face new threats to control over water resources within their territories.

We asked for thoughts on Canada’s abstention. Some comments from Water Canada’s Twitter feed:

@cbdawson: Everyone should have access to sufficient safe water supplies. But could “right” suggest unlimited access for any use?

@globeandbarrel: the consequences of rec water as a h.r. are rather grandiose. Abstaining until the obligations can be determined I assume.

@WCELaw: Most Canadians take drinking water for granted; rights only make sense if you can visualise the right being taken away.

An interesting blog post over at Global Water Intelligence. Click here to read.

4 COMMENTS

  1. While many of us would agree that ACCESS to water should be a high priority, but Maude Barlow says that NOT including “access ïn the UN resolution was a good thing. How strange, but Barlow’s agenda is not helpful to the reality of the poorest communities in the developing world.

    No wonder 41 countries including Canada had to abstain! If not including access means that governments would have to give water to anyone, anywhere, anytime, that is neither feasible, nor is it even advisable. Providing water unconditionally is completely against important water conservation principles of demand side management.

    It is because developing countries have the most egregious problems with water supply management, that their citizens can benefit
    the most from water conservation.

    John Newcomb

    Barlow quote:

    Barlow also said possible inclusion of the word “access” to water and sanitation was a key point of debate, and said the fact the resolution does not include “access” makes it even more useful.

    “It recognizes the human right to drinking water and sanitation for all people and that’s very important because it means governments have to provide the water even if people cannot pay for it . . . it’s an important distinction (not to include ‘access’),” she said.

    Insiders previously indicated that some countries, including Canada, were in favour of leaving “access” in the resolutions’ language.

    In the language of diplomats, having to provide “access” would oblige governments to do no more than deliver water as a marketable commodity — not as a core right that would have to be given to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

    – canada.com/health/Canada+water+supply+threatened+water+rights+vote+Activist/3332789/story.html

  2. While many of us would agree that ACCESS to water should be a high priority, but Maude Barlow says that NOT including “access ïn the UN resolution was a good thing. How strange, but Barlow’s agenda is not helpful to the reality of the poorest communities in the developing world.

    No wonder 41 countries including Canada had to abstain! If not including access means that governments would have to give water to anyone, anywhere, anytime, that is neither feasible, nor is it even advisable. Providing water unconditionally is completely against important water conservation principles of demand side management.

    It is because developing countries have the most egregious problems with water supply management, that their citizens can benefit
    the most from water conservation.

    John Newcomb

    Barlow quote:

    Barlow also said possible inclusion of the word “access” to water and sanitation was a key point of debate, and said the fact the resolution does not include “access” makes it even more useful.

    “It recognizes the human right to drinking water and sanitation for all people and that’s very important because it means governments have to provide the water even if people cannot pay for it . . . it’s an important distinction (not to include ‘access’),” she said.

    Insiders previously indicated that some countries, including Canada, were in favour of leaving “access” in the resolutions’ language.

    In the language of diplomats, having to provide “access” would oblige governments to do no more than deliver water as a marketable commodity — not as a core right that would have to be given to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

    – canada.com/health/Canada+water+supply+threatened+water+rights+vote+Activist/3332789/story.html

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