Clean Water is a Basic Human Right

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On July 28, 2010 the United Nations adopted a resolution officially recognizing that clean water and sanitation are a basic human right. Sadly, one of only a few countries that didn’t vote in favor was the United States.

According to the UN 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation – that’s nearly 40 percent of the world’s population. Each year 1.5 million children under the age of 5 die due to a lack of clean water and sanitation. That’s about the population of metro Columbus!

It’s unlikely that you know anyone first hand that doesn’t have access to clean water and sanitation. In the United States this problem feels very far away. We watch on television as US transport planes deliver clean water to people in need all the time. The irony though is that if not for our overachieving free market policies we might not need to deliver that water in the first place.

According to analysis by Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, even the most arid of countries have the rainfall and technology to provide at least the minimum acceptable amount of water per citizen to sustain life. In some cases war or natural disasters prevent delivery of clean water resources, in others the technology exists but not the infrastructure, but in many it’s industry’s fault. Looking at how this resolution came to be makes me believe industry is the primary reason some of the most developed nations such as the US abstained from voting.

Over the years developed nations that provide leadership to the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO have put pressure on underdeveloped countries to privatize communal resources. One example of this is the 1999 case where Bolivia was pressured to privatize their water under a subsidiary of Bechtel, a US based corporation.

After an immediate cost increase of 35-60%, Bolivians couldn’t afford water and people revolted. Since then Bolivia has been a primary spokes-country for this debate and author of this resolution. For this reason it’s important to understand the wording of the UN resolution.

The US and others abstained in part due to the refusal of the authors to add the word access – as in, “the UN recognizes that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right”. This is important because access allows a private business like Bechtel to provide the resource only to those who can afford it. This defeats the purpose of making it a human right.

Private industry may provide us with all sorts of amazing and entertaining products but what can’t be achieved through private industry is the fulfillment of human rights. Human rights are not a commodity to be sold selfishly but instead what we are born with and the bedrock of a peaceful and equitable society. To quote a great American, FDR, “virtues are lost in self-interest as rivers are lost in the sea.”

Andrew Miller hosts the blog Elephants on Bicycles

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