Maude Barlow Headshot

Don't Drink Harper's Water

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It is World Water Day, a day to celebrate the world's water heritage and ensure clean adequate supplies of drinking water and sanitation for all. To our shame, Canada is once again leading a charge to weaken language in an important United Nations document that would reiterate the human right to water and sanitation leading up to the June Earth Summit Rio + 20.

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the human rights to drinking water and sanitation by an overwhelming vote. Two months later, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a similar resolution and laid out the obligations these rights confer on governments. As it has consistently wherever this subject came up at the UN, the Harper government led the charge to stop the General Assembly from taking this step, which it did not vote for, and now remains one of only two countries in the world -- the other being Tonga -- that continues to deny that the world's poorest people should have these rights.

There is no obvious logical explanation for this position. The suggestion that recognising the right to water would endanger Canada's water supplies is a red herring. The government has long ago been assured by UN experts that these resolutions oblige Canada to provide clean water and satiation only to its own people and does not in any way oblige it to share Canada's water resources with another country.

The fact is that the Harper government has taken a similar position on a number of recent human rights and environmental agreements. It is ideologically opposed to any extension of human rights, which might oblige it to take proactive measures, such as providing water to First Nations communities in Canada where the water services are deplorable.

As well, recognising the human right to water would clash with the notion of water as a commodity as is currently built into trade agreements like NAFTA. In fact, the world's two largest private water utilities, Suez and Veolia of France, are fully supportive of the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement as it could open the door to lucrative water service contracts in cash- strapped municipalities across Canada.

The Harper government opposes the human right to water precisely because it views water as a market commodity to be sold like oil and gas to the highest bidder. And it continues to work against this right at every chance it gets.

Last week, the Harper government worked hard behind the scenes to ensure that a clear statement on the human right to water and sanitation was removed from the ministerial declaration at the sixth World Water Forum in Marseille France. This week, it is working hard to remove the reference to these rights from the first draft of the Rio+20 working document.

In a rare rebuke, Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, has chastised Canada in a World Water Day press release. "Rio+20 and post-2015 development goals should not betray the previous commitments on the right to water and sanitation," she said, specifically naming Canada as one of two countries "proposing the removal" of an explicit reference to these right in the document.

This comes at a dangerous time. Just weeks ago, the UN announced that it has met its 2015 millennium goals on drinking water leading many to think the fight has been won. But the UN comes to this assessment by measuring the number of pipes installed in countries. It does not measure whether there is clean water coming out of these pipes, how far people have to walk to get to them or if the water is affordable. Access to a prepaid water metre is not real access to the poor.

Other UN and World Bank studies tell a different story -- one in which the planet Earth is running out of clean accessible water and in which billions will suffer unless we take better care of these diminishing water sources and share them more justly.

Shame on the Harper government this World Water Day. Let's honour the day by telling this government that it is out of step with the whole world.