Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Craig and Marc Kielburger

GET UPDATES FROM Craig and Marc Kielburger
 

Canada's Dirty (Water) Secret

Posted: 04/ 2/2012 11:15 am

Standing before the massed representatives at the United Nations, Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Solon raised one hand and slowly snapped his fingers -- once, twice, three times. Then he held up one finger. With that quiet gesture, he hammered home his point: Every three and a half seconds, somewhere in the developing world, one child dies of a water-born disease.

"Water is life," he said. "As my people say, 'Now is the time'."

On that day, July 28, 2010, the UN recognized water to be a universal human right. But 41 out of 163 countries abstained from the vote.

One of those countries was ours.

For over a decade, Canadian governments have opposed the recognition of water as a basic human right.

We struggle to understand why.

Without clean water to drink we will die in as little as two days.

Dirty water is every bit as deadly as no water at all. The World Health Organization estimates that 3.5 million people die every year of water-borne diseases. When Ambassador Solon spoke to the UN General Assembly, he explained that half the world's hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from illness caused by unclean water.

Water is so vital that each day women around the world spend an estimated 200 million hours hauling it for their families.

Access to something so essential should be a human right. Unfortunately that opinion is not universal, as our government shows us through their continued actions.

What does recognizing clean water as a human right mean for countries?

Maude Barlow, Chair of the Council of Canadians, says in her essay "Our Right to Water" that when water is a human right it creates three obligations for a nation: the obligation to respect, the obligation to protect, and the obligation to fulfill.

The obligation to respect means the government can't take action or make a policy that interferes with its citizens' right to water. So, for example, no one can be denied water for drinking and sanitation because they cannot afford water fees or taxes.

The obligation to protect means that countries must ensure no one else interferes with the water rights of their citizens. For example they must not allow private companies or local governments to pollute water supplies or prevent citizens from accessing water.

The obligation to fulfill means that countries must take any additional steps necessary to meet their citizens' need for water. That could mean, for example, improving or increasing public water systems.

Last month, Canada was one among many countries that sent representatives to Marseilles, France, for the World Water Forum, the largest international gathering on water issues.

The February forum was the first since the 2010 UN declaration on water. Officials from international organizations and many countries arrived in Marseilles pushing for the Forum to follow the UN and affirm clean water as a human right.

Amnesty International and the Council of Canadians were among the organizations in Marseilles, watching Canada in action. In their reports from the conference, they have singled out Canada as a leading force using backroom lobbying and pressure to water down the language of the Forum declaration.

According to Amnesty International, rather than declaring water a human right that must be respected by all nations, the statement offers vague language that allows countries to decide for themselves whether they have an obligation to extend the right to water to their citizens. This would leave countries like Canada free to ignore the right to water when they find it inconvenient.

Why is Canada resistant to recognizing clean water as a human right? Perhaps it's because if we were to do so, we would have to face the fact that our country, a world leader in fighting for human rights, is denying a human right to hundreds of thousands of our own people.

Right now in Canada, 112 First Nations communities are living under drinking water advisories that require them to boil their tap water, or avoid drinking the water completely, because of contamination.

Canada is failing its obligations to protect and fulfill the human right to water in aboriginal communities and even some non-aboriginal rural communities.

We believe most Canadians see clean water as their intrinsic right. Witness the years of public outrage and backlash that followed the case of water contamination in Walkerton, Ontario, that led to seven deaths and thousands of cases of illness in 2000.

None of us would long tolerate having our access to clean water cut off. It's time for us as a nation to recognize the right we take for granted is a universal human right that extends to all.


 

Follow Craig and Marc Kielburger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/craigkielburger