Democratic governance must to overcome global water crisis

2021-09-22, 1:12pm Democracy


Water - Impact of a drop of water on a water-surface. Roger Mclassus. Creative Commons.

Geneva, 21 Sep (Kanaga Raja) – The world is facing a global water crisis generated by the confluence of two structural flaws in the current development model, namely, the un-sustainability of the aquatic ecosystems and the poverty, inequality and discrimination that prevail under the current socioeconomic order.

This is one of the main conclusions highlighted by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Mr Pedro Arrojo Agudo, in his first report presented to the UN Human Rights Council, which is currently holding its forty-eighth regular session.

Humanity faces, among others, a crisis that is as tragic as it is paradoxical: the global water crisis on the water planet, the blue planet, he said.

The rights expert said that the facts that 2.2 billion people do not have guaranteed access to safe drinking water, 4.2 billion people live without access to a basic sanitation service, almost 673 million practice open defecation and that, as a consequence, there are around 2 million deaths per year, along with many other arguments, justify the characterization of the situation as a global water crisis.

“It is a global water crisis that is generating a growing wave of socio-environmental conflicts around the world over the management of water and aquatic ecosystems, conflicts carried out by those who are the first to suffer from the crisis on its various fronts.”

According to the Special Rapporteur, the root causes of the global water crisis lie at the confluence of two major structural flaws in the current development model: (a) The un-sustainability of the aquatic ecosystems, which degrades the quality of its flows, turning water from being the key to life into a terrible vector of disease and death; (b) The poverty, inequality and discrimination under the prevailing socioeconomic order.

He said that to make matters worse, there are currently three factors that are directly and indirectly aggravating and intensifying the global water crisis: the commodification and financialization of water, climate change and recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has deepened inequalities and extended poverty.

On the commodification and financialization of water, the Special Rapporteur said that he is concerned that the prevailing neoliberal vision tends to consider water as a simple economic resource, useful and scarce, to be managed as a commodity.

“That approach opens up business opportunities in the privatization of water and sanitation services, in the sale and purchase of water rights or even in the management of water as a financial asset based on speculative strategies.”

The rights expert said by applying that vision, people become mere customers, which increases the vulnerability of those 2.2 billion impoverished people by turning them into poor customers who find it very difficult to pay.

In short, he said, that vision, far from solving the global water crisis, actually aggravates it by making those living in poverty more vulnerable, weakening compliance with human rights and seriously degrading democratic water governance.

With regard to climate change, he added that the serious problems of un-sustainability currently affecting a large part of the world’s aquatic ecosystems could worsen to the point of collapse, with unprecedented socioeconomic consequences.

The Special Rapporteur said as for the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that it is disproportionately affecting the most impoverished and marginalized populations is deepening the inequality, marginalization and poverty that fuel the global water crisis.

According to the rights expert, water is extremely abundant on planet Earth. However, 97.5 per cent is salt water and only 2.5 per cent is fresh water, mostly stored as perpetual ice at the poles or on mountain tops.

Around 0.5 per cent of the total volume is available fresh water, circulating through rivers, lakes and aquifers.

In the Special Rapporteur’s opinion, it is simplistic to argue that freshwater scarcity is at the heart of the global water crisis.

If that approach were taken, one should also consider the atmosphere to be scarce, as it is not able to digest the emission of greenhouse gases without altering the climate, and even the planet to be insufficient, he said.

However, that type of diagnosis exists and often leads, on the one hand, to proposing new hydraulic mega-projects and intensifying the exploitation of rivers and aquifers, which would put additional and increased pressures on ecosystems and accelerate their un-sustainability crisis.

It also leads, on the other hand, to justifying the treatment of water as a simple, useful and scarce economic good.

In the Special Rapporteur’s opinion, such an approach constitutes a serious and dangerous mistake.

From the human rights perspective, the key reference point is the 2.2 billion people who do not have guaranteed access to drinking water and the 4.2 billion who lack sanitation.

The amount of water needed per person to satisfy those human rights, while depending on the climate and culture of each region, is in fact a minimal amount.

According to the Special Rapporteur’s estimate, taking the reference of 50 litres of safe drinking water per person per day estimated by the World Health Organization in a scenario in which water is delivered fewer than 100 metres from the home, the total required would be about 3 per cent of the water that is currently taken on average from nature for people’s needs and economic activities.

“No river will dry up if, in the future, humanity takes only 3 per cent of the water from it,” said the rights expert.

In today’s urban society, in which people have to buy everything they need, having a low income that does not allow access to what is necessary for a decent life undoubtedly implies poverty, he added.

According to the World Bank, in 2017, one tenth of the world’s population, around 689 million individuals, had an income of less than US$ 1.90 per day.

Although income is only one of the dimensions that should be taken into consideration, those estimates hint at the magnitude of global poverty.

The non-fulfilment of human rights such as the rights to adequate housing, health, education, food, water and sanitation, which are in fact inter-related, is perhaps the clearest expression of extreme poverty, said the Special Rapporteur.

“Of them all, it is perhaps the breach of the right to sanitation that triggers the non-compliance of all the others.”

For that reason, dedicating attention and effort not only to the human right to water, but also to sanitation, which is often kept in the shadows, is key in the fight against poverty.

The rights expert said that in rural areas and particularly for indigenous peoples, whose patterns of life are more closely linked to nature, territory and community values, most of the necessities for a dignified life are not bought, but provided by nature or the community.

A healthy river is the guarantee of abundant drinking water and even food, providing for irrigation to grow crops and for fishing.

Problems emerge when large extractive ventures, hydraulic mega-projects, deforestation or large agribusiness break the sustainability of ecosystems and, in particular, of the rivers on which those communities depend.

In such cases, poverty arises from discrimination towards those communities. Rarely do large dams flood wealthy, influential populations, said the Special Rapporteur.

Often such projects affect indigenous peoples or peasants who are discriminated against and victimized by the alleged development of the projects, which plunge into poverty and destitution those who up until then had lived with dignity, despite having little income.

In urban settings, water supply and sewage networks often do not reach the large slums or informal settlements where the poorest families live.

Despite having negligible incomes, they end up buying the water they need to live from vendors with tanker trucks, with no guarantee of drinkability and paying much more than the cost of water for wealthy families in the neighbourhoods reached by the supply network. It is estimated that they pay between 10 and 20 times more than their more affluent neighbours.

In many developing countries, the fact that the urban water supply is not drinkable is assumed to be normal or unavoidable.

In that context, those with sufficient income consume bottled water, even if it costs around US$1,000 per 1,000 litres, while the poorest end up assuming the risks involved in drinking tap water.

From the experience of the Special Rapporteur, those urban networks often have leaks of the order of 50 per cent and even more, so the way to save on leaks is to cut off the water in different neighbourhoods and districts in turn.

That is indeed a very important saving, but it necessarily involves supplying non-drinkable water, as massive contaminant intrusion occurs through the same leakage points when there is no water circulating in the network and therefore no pressure in the pipes.

The fact that water is not safe to drink is sometimes due to toxic pollutants. Unfortunately, the toxic contamination of rivers and aquifers by mining and industrial discharges or even by diffuse pollution from agriculture is growing daily, said the Special Rapporteur.

Heavy metals, pesticides and other toxins end up poisoning millions of people little by little through urban water networks, even if the water is chlorinated.

Since adequate public information is often not accessible and the effects on health are not immediate, the most impoverished often consume that water and suffer disproportionately from negative health impacts in the medium and long term, aggravating their situation in poverty.

One of the benchmarks of poverty in both developing and developed countries is water poverty that arises in the form of water disconnections to poor families due to non-payment.

Such disconnections, in the Special Rapporteur’s view, should be considered a violation of their human rights to water and sanitation.

The health of people, especially those living in poverty, is closely related to the health and ecological status of the rivers or aquifers from which they receive water.

Therefore, the health of those ecosystems has an impact on the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation, said the rights expert.

Degrading or breaking the sustainability of rivers, wetlands and aquifers also endangers other human rights by affecting fishing and the livelihoods of riverine communities. It can also seriously affect the sustainability of the deltas and beaches on which many people’s lives depend.

The deterioration of the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems is alarming: of the 3,471 mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish populations assessed, there has been an average decline of 84 per cent since 1970.

Millions of kilometres of river ecosystems have been destroyed or severely affected. Nearly 90 per cent of the wetlands that existed in the eighteenth century have disappeared, said the Special Rapporteur.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of all people and forced the world to undertake a collective response, he added.

The option of shielding borders to restrict risks to remote countries, as was achieved with other diseases, did not work with COVID-19; the virus travelled by plane, even in business class.

Although vulnerability is greatest in impoverished populations, particularly among women and girls, as well as other marginalized groups, no one will be out of harm’s way until everyone is under cover.

For the first time, the motto that governs the Sustainable Development Goals, “leave no one behind”, is felt and imposed as inescapable. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the role of adequate hygiene with soap and water to prevent infection.

What had been evidence argued a thousand times – the role of water and sanitation services as a basic tenet of public health – has become an urgent and unavoidable tool that should not leave anyone behind, to ensure effectiveness in fighting the virus.

That has led many Governments to ban disconnections of water supply service for non-payment as an emergency measure in the face of the pandemic.

General consensus is growing on the need to strengthen public health systems as non-profit public efforts that seek to protect the health of all those who have been left behind.

According to the Special Rapporteur, there is also growing evidence of the need to integrate, under the consensus, the management of water and sanitation services as a cornerstone of public health, prioritizing the corresponding public economic efforts to empower local and sub-national governments, as well as community authorities, in their competencies in water and sanitation services and facilities and the corresponding obligation to guarantee the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

In any case, beyond that positive shift in public awareness, the pandemic is deepening and expanding inequality and poverty which, it must not be forgotten, is the first structural flaw causing the global water crisis, by affecting more intensely those who live in the worst conditions of habitability and hygiene.

The approach based on maximizing benefits that dominates the development and application of vaccines increases the problems of inequity, exacerbates the impact of the pandemic among the poorest and increases the risks of virus mutation, said the rights expert.

“Vaccines maximize individual and collective resilience to disease, but they must be guaranteed for everyone, including the poorest, prioritizing the principle of the general interest over the right to excessive profits of large pharmaceutical corporations,” said the Special Rapporteur.

Over the past few decades, the prevailing neoliberal vision has been proposing that water be considered as a commodity to be managed under the logic of the free market, he added.

Adopting that approach, privatized management of water and sanitation services has been promoted and water markets have been created, leading to an increase in de facto private appropriation of water by those holding concessions for its use.

Recently, under the vision of water management as a business space, water rights have come to be managed as financial assets in the Wall Street futures markets under the logic of speculative strategies.

In the Special Rapporteur’s view, water must continue to be considered as a public good, preserving the values of participation and common responsibility treasured by community-based management.

The global water crisis must be met by promoting democratic water governance that ensures the sustainability of ecosystems and develops a human rights-based approach to water management under legal rules that regulate the ethical priorities outlined above.

Managing water according to purely market logic, through privatization, commodification and even financialization strategies, makes those living in poverty more vulnerable, jeopardizes their human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and undermines the sustainability of ecosystems, contradicting both the consideration of water as a public good and the logic of the general interest, said the Special Rapporteur.

In short, to face the global water crisis with those 2.2 billion people without guaranteed drinking water and 4.2 billion without sanitation, it is necessary to build and strengthen democratic governance practices, the Special Rapporteur concluded. 

- Third World Network