08/07/2014 12:42 EDT | Updated 10/07/2014 05:59 EDT

Access To Water Is No Longer Just A Third World Problem

On July 28, 2010, after years of pressure from many countries, the United Nations General Assembly declared access to clean water for drinking and sanitation to be a universal human right. But many places in the world struggle to guarantee this human right. Access to water is no longer just a third world problem.

Yasser Chalid via Getty Images

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

It's a classic extortion racket.

Criminals demanding regular payments and if their victims don't deliver, the thugs warn, "Somebody dies!" But in 28 villages in northern India, there's one big difference: the gangsters don't want cash, they want water -- 35 buckets a day, delivered to their hideout. Or else.

Northern India has been short of water since 2007.

As we browse headlines, we notice threads emerge from seemingly disparate and unrelated stories. Global conflict is an obvious theme lately -- the Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, Iraq. But there's another, as yet unremarked-upon thread winding its way through the news. It can be summed up in three words: not enough water. And the ironic twist: this takes place as we celebrate the day access to water became a human right.

On July 28, 2010, after years of pressure from many countries, the United Nations General Assembly declared access to clean water for drinking and sanitation to be a universal human right. The UN Human Rights Council went further, with resolutions clarifying the obligations of countries to provide affordable access to water for all citizens, without discrimination. Despite those resolutions, the fight for access to water goes on from India to the U.S. -- to Canada.

Detroit, Michigan, the "Rock City," might soon be known as "Dry-as-a-Rock City." The city has cut off water for more than 16,000 residents for failing to pay their water bills. Detroit was hit hard by the recession. Many unemployed residents can't pay their water bills. Some Detroiters have gone weeks without clean water to drink, wash in, or flush their toilets.

In true Canadian fashion, folks from this side of the border are trying to help. On Thursday, July 24, the Council of Canadians made a symbolic delivery of 1,000 litres of water, and further supported Detroit residents in calling for an end to the water cut-offs. The United Nations has called the cut-offs a violation of the basic human right to water.

In early July, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights threw its support behind a water-impoverished Manitoba First Nations band. Shoal Lake, which straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border, is a major source of water for Winnipeg. However, the aqueduct built in the early 20th century to bring Winnipeg water also cut off the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation reserve from its traditional water source. The band has fought for access to clean water for almost 100 years.

According to Health Canada, as of May this year, 91 First Nations communities in Canada face water quality issues--from boil water advisories, to outright bans on using tap water. The Council of Canadians says 73 per cent of First Nations communities are at medium to high risk from water contamination.

The Detroit crisis has also opened a new front in the fight over the privatization of water. Detroit is one of many U.S. communities considering privatizing its city water system. When communities in South Africa handed management of their water supplies to private companies in the early 2000s, 25 per cent of the population had their water supply disconnected.

Mismanagement of water resources in Jamaica has turned a manageable annual dry season into an annual crisis. When fuel supplies ran out in Ed Daein, capital of East Darfur, the water pumps stopped running. Now livestock are dying by the hundreds.

Meanwhile, climate change brings drought to communities everywhere.

The largest lake in China has been reduced to a slightly damp plain. Australian climate scientists now believe Australia's 14-year "Millennium Drought" is likely to become a permanent "Forever Drought." California is parched, and drought is blamed for wildfires raging across the U.S. Midwest. In March, the UN Food and Agriculture organization announced that droughts affecting two thirds of arable land in the Middle East will lead to increased food prices globally. Droughts are spreading and intensifying on every single inhabited continent according to the U.S. Global Drought Information System.

In the 21st century, access to water is no longer a third world problem. It's everybody's problem. The world desperately needs an action plan to guarantee the universal human right to water.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


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