The British government is marking UN World Water Day today by turning its back on the civilised world. Contacted by ARC2020 yesterday, the Foreign Office explicitly refused to recognise water as a human right, even though the right to water and sanitation was explicitly recognised by the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council in 2010.
This year’s event focuses on Water and Food Security, [see ARC2020’s water day feature] reminding policymakers that more than two thirds of the world’s total blue water withdrawals (accessible surface and ground water) are used to irrigate crops. Irrigated crops account for just 20% of cultivated land and supply 40% of total world food production, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The UK is currently involved in negotiations over the text for the Rio+20 conference that opens in 90 days’ time, in Brazil. A consensus position on water is an essential part of the conference.
In a statement sent to ARC2020, the Foreign Office said: “The UK [government] does not believe there exists, at present, sufficient legal basis under international law to declare either water or sanitation as freestanding human rights.” Insisting on “customary international law” as the basis for its opinion, the Foreign Office adds: “Neither a right to water nor a right to sanitation have been agreed upon in any UN human rights treaty, nor is there evidence that they exist in customary international law.”
This blank denial unleashes a nightmare scenario for UN water and sanitation rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque, who yesterday urged the negotiating countries: “…not to go back on their decisions to recognise the right to water and sanitation for all, and act consistently with them.”
The Foreign Office does concede that a right to water is part of “…an adequate standard of living.” But the tone is hardly conciliatory: “We do believe there is a right to water as an element of the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living. We also believe that inadequate sanitation has a negative impact on the protection of human rights – for example the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
Nor can the Foreign Office expect to be awarded points for its curmudgeonly justification: “We are concerned that without a clear, internationally agreed definition, it is difficult for the individual to know what they can legitimately claim from the State and for the State to have any clear understanding of what protection they are obliged to afford the individual.”
In her earlier statement, de Albuquerque was anticipating a potential chasm for the Rio+20 process. “Some states, including Canada and the United Kingdom, are apparently proposing the removal of an explicit reference to the right to water and sanitation for all from the first draft of the ‘Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development’ outcome document,” she warned. These discussions are currently underway in New York.
“States are wasting their time on re-negotiating their own decisions, rather than moving forward to implement the right to water and sanitation for all,” de Albuquerque emphasised. “We should be marking World Water Day with progress, not debating semantics and certainly not back-tracking on these issues.”
The UK government’s action heightens the risk of dislocation to the Rio+20 process. The questions it begs are stark ones, according to de Albuquerque: “Who does not want a future where every single individual enjoys safe drinking water? Who does not want a future where nobody dies due to drinking unsafe water? Who does not want to eradicate the indignity and humiliation of open defaecation?”
A shared international commitment to clean and safe drinking water is inextricably linked to sanitation. “We need to speak up for the millions who are marginalised and forgotten. People sleeping on the street; girls who walk miles to fetch water every day; boys who drop out of school because of diarrhoea; people who cannot access water because of their disabilities.” Without clean and safe water and sanitation there can be little meaningful discussion of food security.