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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Humanitarian or missionary?

Noreen Fagan | October 27, 2014

Andrea Paras is a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the relationship between religion and humanitarian work. She explores how the religious values of different humanitarian organizations affect their practices, and how Christians in Canadian faith-based organizations distinguish themselves between missionary and development work. “I am trying to question the idea that there is a strict separation between the religious and the secular,” says Paras. “It is something that is taken for granted by Western societies – the assumption that religion should be delegated to the private sphere.” Paras argues that going into a foreign country to deliver relief or assistance has strong historical roots in religious activity, and that religious actors have been involved with development work since it started. However, over the last 50 years the dynamics of humanitarian aid have changed, and so have the requirements for organizations interested in development work. For Canadian faith-based organizations to receive funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (formerly known as the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA) they are required in to separate their development work from their religious mandate. This mandatory adherence to a secular format prompts Paras to question whether religious organizations can separate the two, and if they are really different from any other humanitarian organization. “I don’t think they are that separate,” says Paras. “Organizations buy into the secular fiction, but once they go down that road it can put them in tricky position. If they go too far away from their religious identities then their church-based constituencies start getting worried.” She says ultimately secular and the non-secular agencies may assume different appearances, but in humanitarian work they share a common set of values. “If you look at the values of dignity and humanity that Medecins Sans Frontiere talks about, they are not all that different from the values that would motivate a Christian or a Muslim organization, ” says Paras. She states these values are rooted in western values, which are in turn based on religious beliefs. But, as the Western world’s approach to development changed, the religious tenets gave way to a more humanistic set of values. “As Western society in general became more secular, the [development] organizations that emerged wanted to do the same kind of work, but not for religious reasons,” says Paras. In Canada, this shift from the religious to the secular became more apparent as the amount of humanitarian aid increased. Audiences started to understand the problems associated with development work. Hence, over the last 20 years agencies have steered away from the traditional paternalistic approach to development. The same fear of paternalism extends to faith-based organizations. “They [Canadian audiences] are putting pressure of church-based agencies to stay relevant and to minimize the negative effect of what they are doing,” says Paras. In order to minimize any negativity, religious organizations have become more self-reflexive about their own identities, and more concerned about staying relevant. By staying relevant, Paras means faith-based organizations have to prove they are equitable, non-discriminatory, and that they engage multiple-faith audiences in their work. While non-secular organizations may only be driven by humanistic values, faith-based agencies still have to find a balance between satisfying their church-based constituents and their role in development. They have to position themselves very carefully between secular donors and church-based audiences that might expect certain things of them. Finding the right balance can be tricky. “If they stay too close to their traditional mandates – and this is the case for a number of organizations in Canada that started off as traditional missionary sending agencies – they risk becoming extinct,” says Paras.    

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