9 December 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


More children died from water-borne disease every day than from HIV/AIDS, war and traffic accidents combined, an entirely preventable situation if parents could afford clean water, Maude Barlow, Senior Adviser to the President of the General Assembly on water issues, said at a Headquarters press conference today.

“It is the most powerful and important face of inequity in the world,” she stressed, making the broader point that the world was up against a serious water crisis of two dimensions: ecological and human.  Introducing Ms. Barlow was Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua, who wished to place water “at the front of the world’s conscience” during his tenure.

Ms. Barlow, a panellist in tomorrow’s celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said the time was ripe to honour those with the original vision to create the Declaration, and take the next step by adding water as a full covenant to it.

“We’ve got to protect water as a human right,” she emphasized, calling for the creation of a binding instrument that would declare water a human right and public trust belonging to all people.  The Human Rights Council was deliberating on that and, if created, it would be a tool to demand the right to water.

Taking water from where it was needed for healthy ecosystems removed the ability of the hydrologic cycle to reduce climate change, she explained, pointing out that humanity’s abuse of water through pollution and displacement was among the major causes of climate change.  Such behaviour was having an enormous human impact; indeed the World Health Organization (WHO) had found that 80 per cent of the world’s illnesses were linked to dirty water.  Dealing with that one issue would have great human, ecological and economic ripple effects.

Declining freshwater sources and growing demand had created a situation whereby those who owned and controlled water were in a very powerful position, she said.  Behind the call for a binding declaration were principles that must be decided upon sooner rather than later: was access to water a human right or a need?  Was it a common good like air or a commodity like Coca-Cola?  Who was being given the power to turn on the tap, Governments or the “invisible hand” of the market?  Who set prices, a locally elected water board or a far-away CEO?  Those urgent questions were being addressed by communities around the globe.

She said that the Council of Canadians, of which she was the head, was working with countries that were promoting the right to water constitutionally.  For example, a plebiscite in Uruguay four years ago had led to a referendum, which, in turn, had led to a constitutional amendment naming water as a human right and public service to be delivered on a not-for-profit basis.  Also, a Colombian group named Ecofundo had collected 2 million signatures in a plebiscite that would lead to a referendum on the right to water.  Such activities were also happening in Mexico and other countries.

The private sector had an important role to play in providing infrastructure and innovative technology, she said, stressing that it should not be involved with determining water policies.

Responding to a question about the claim by Coca-Cola, a member of the United Nations Global Compact, that it was water neutral, Ms. Barlow accused the Compact of “blue washing”, or wrapping the Organization’s seal of approval around corporate behaviour that did not signify a change.  Water neutrality was a new concept whereby communities tried to reduce their water impact to the point where there was no negative effect.  That concept became exciting when corporations undertook a “closed loop system” for their water use –- or found ways for nature to clean their water -- and the Council of Canadians fully supported that.

However, when a company made a living by taking water from aquifers, putting it in plastic and selling it, that did not constitute water neutrality, she stressed.  Corporations such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and Pepsi had come under protest in India, New England and Canada, where they were considered “water hunters” which extracted the resource as quickly as possible and moved on before allowing supplies to replenish.  In addition, the use of bottled water in a country with clean tap water was “a terrible mistake”.

General Assembly President d’Escoto added that the participation of corporations in the area of water, in a manner that did not contradict the human right to clean water, was a priority for the Assembly to define.  The exact nature of their role must be pinpointed.  “It’s a bit murky now.”

Asked about how to handle water in occupied areas, such as Palestine and south Lebanon, Ms. Barlow said she was keen to have water enshrined as a full human right in a binding covenant, precisely so that in areas of inequity, where some communities did not have access to shared water, people would have one more tool to exercise their rights.  “This is a conflict that’s growing” between rich and poor, between nation States and between cities and indigenous peoples.  The water crisis was like a “comet coming at us” in that, all of a sudden, differences didn’t mean anything because death was imminent.  The Council of Canadians was holding discussions with Friends of the Earth Middle East to find better ways to share water.  Such deliberations provided a small sign of hope in a very difficult situation.

As to whether the commercialization of water had led to people being deprived of important nutrients, Ms. Barlow said the leaching of chemicals from plastic bottles was a problem.

On whether Canada could be a leader on the question of water, she said she wished that were the case, as the country held 6.5 per cent of the world’s available freshwater.  However, Canada “lived with the myth of abundance”.  It had not introduced water legislation, banned the commercial export of water, or protected its great lakes.  Consecutive Governments had refused to support the right to water, notably as the North American Free Trade Agreement had identified water as a commercial good.  Nonetheless, given time, the Government would change its position.

As to whether the Darfur conflict had to do with water, she said water was very much a part of the original crisis, but the Government of Sudan had exploited the crisis to implement terrorism.  Had it dealt with the water issue, the crisis would not have unfolded in the same way.

She called for watching the “super-Powers” when they looked outside their borders for water supplies, as they did today for oil, highlighting in that context China’s construction of a pipeline to take water from the Tibetan Himalayas.

Asked whether her travel had been funded by the United Nations, she said the Organization had covered her hotel bill and air fare, but her travel to Colombia and other countries had been funded by the Council of Canadians.  “I’m a cheap date,” she quipped in conclusion.

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For information media • not an official record