What does a human right to water mean?

Is there a world water crisis happening right now, and if so, how is it affected by a recent push to establish water as a human right? This was one of the ideas explored during a recent talk by Wilfrid Laurier University Professor Alex Latta at THEMUSEUM in downtown Kitchener.

Latta’s research focuses on water issues in Chile related to hydroelectric development, as well as “ecological citizenship” — the way that environmental issues relate to the political sphere.

The talk focused on different forms of water scarcity and how they speak to the idea of access to water as a fundamental right. According to Latta, water scarcity takes four main forms: “challenges for provision of water/sanitation, changing distributions of water (mainly due to climate change), contamination and pollution of water, and the increased competition for water resources resulting from the global increase in population and standards of living.”

In light of the 2010 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 64/292 on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Latta sought to probe the meaning of a human right to water in the face of these different forms of scarcity.

Throughout the talk, Latta presented two views regarding this question: a minimalist interpretation of the human right to water, focussed on access for basic needs, and an alternate vision regarding water democracy and water justice, which has arisen out of movements against water privatization around the world.

The first perspective takes the view of several key international organizations, including the World Water Council, the World Water Forum and the World Bank. According to Latta, in this perspective the right to water means: “an end to water poverty, access to improved water and sanitation, and hopefully access to ‘safe’ water sources”.

The second perspective proposes that access to water is a social justice issue, and that water should be a public good. Focussed especially on the Global South, this view brings examples of water injustice to the forefront, including water inequality in Africa, the impacts on different socioeconomic groups due to increasing competition for water resources, and the role of large-scale industry and agriculture in widespread water contamination. From this perspective, Latta claims that a right to water means: “social justice in water and sanitation, protection of community water sources, climate justice in relation to water scarcity, and water as a public good, not a commodity.”

Though giving exposure to both sides of this debate, Latta left no doubt that he favours the latter perspective, suggesting that “only a more expansive debate around the right to water can adequately address the challenge of insuring more egalitarian access to this vital resource”.

Latta stressed the importance of taking a global perspective in these areas.

“As Canadians, we’re implicated in issues in other parts of the world,” he said. “In particular, we cannot dismiss the fact that our carbon footprint is significant. We must take some responsibility for the effects of climate change and the implications this is having for changing distributions of water around the globe.”

Latta also highlighted the value of this discussion, which was part of Laurier’s Water Dialogues series, happening out in the community, rather than on campus.

“Having a public space to explore these issues is very important,” said Latta. “It helps to get people thinking and talking about this important topic.”

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