Behind closed doors, world leaders are currently debating a draft resolution that recognizes the right to water and sanitation as a basic universal right. For the two billion people living in water-stressed regions, and the three billion with no running water within a kilometer of their homes, access to clean water seems an obvious component of the rights to an adequate standard of living, which the United Nations does recognize. However, the resolution, put forward by Bolivia, has irked heads of a number of wealthy countries around the world, including the US, UK, Australia, and perhaps most notably, water-rich Canada.
It comes as little surprise that Bolivia is the driving force behind this critical issue. Cochabamba, a Bolivian city to the southwest of La Paz, was the center of a water war ten years ago, as farmers, factory workers, and cocoa growers descended on the Andean city to protest the privatization of Cochamaba’s water system. The multinational corporation Bechtel, had won the rights to Cochabamba’s water in 1999, after the World Bank and then President Hugo Banzer placed Cochabamba’s public water system on the market. Less than a year after this deal was brokered, Bechtel increased the cost of Cochabamban water by as much as 60 percent, pricing out a majority of the city’s population. Three months of protest later, the people of Cochabamba emerged as victors, having pushed Bechtel out of their city and regaining control over their municipal water system.
Water remains a top priority for Cochabambans today’and all other communities dependent on glacier meltwater for that matter’as glaciers retreat and the effects of climate change are increasingly felt. The push to recognize water as a fundamental human right was a central issue in the Cochabamban-hosted World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held last April. The final agreement’s text “demand(ed) recognition of the right of all peoples, living beings, and Mother Earth to have access to water.”
As Bolivian President Evo Morales tries to make good on his country’s climate change agreement, expect continued resistance from wealthy nations, as they move to protect their rights to commodify natural resources. The Bolivian-led resolution should reach the UN General Assembly President by the end of July, and will likely remain a hot topic in the build up to the Cancun Climate Change Conference this November.
Photo courtesy of Kris Krug