Editor’s pickWater may be considered a human right, but who will give it?

13-04-2017

Pope Francis’ declaration that safe, drinkable water is a human right should be taken to heart by both the public and private sectors. After all, the issue should be given a central position in business and policy decision-making, famed water expert Asit Biswas, a founder of the International Resources Association and World Water Council, co-founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at LKYSSP, said.

At a research seminar on water as a human right held at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) in Singapore, Biswas talked about his thoughts and experiences when he visited the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. There, Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, “categorically” urged the private sector to join in the discourse on water conservation. This, to Biswas, underlined the increasing understanding of the role businesses – both public and private – have to play in resolving today’s water concerns.

He also extolled the Laudato Si, the Pope’s 2015 encyclical, as “one of the best, balanced documents you’ll ever see.” The papal publication encourages humankind to safeguard the environment and hails access to safe, drinkable water a “basic and universal human right.” However, Biswas said that he struggles with the section that advises that water should be offered by only the private sector.

The Laudato Si emphasises the vitality of a multi-party discussion, and appears to find fault in the privatisation of water, regarding it as an obstruction to the ideal of water being a human right. “Even has the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatise this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market,” the Pope wrote. “Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.”

But the deliberation regarding the responsibility of whether water supply or sanitation falls to either the public or private sector is nothing more than a red herring, Biswas stated. The research scientist pointed out that best and terrible water management systems have come from both the public and private sectors. “I don’t care which sector it comes from, as long as the system can provide clean water on a reliable basis and make sure that both rich and poor have access to water,” he added.

In water conservation, Biswas recognised the “sea change” in the way the private sector is treating water concerns. Multinational corporations (MNCs) like Coca-Cola, Nestle, and Tata Group have come a long way in using their resources more efficiently and providing locals with access to clean, safe water. “Companies have realised that for their own survival, and if they want to thrive, they have no choice but to look at water as a major existential issue.”

For example, in 2007, after an anti-poverty organisation spotlighted Coca-Cola’s disproportionate use of resources, the company promised to recycle water, lower its water consumption, and restore water in nature and communities. But the MNC has kept their word; from using up 2.7 litres of water to produce one litre of its signature beverage, it has cut the amount down to less than two litres. In 2016, it disclosed that it had restored all the water resources it had consumed through an estimated 248 community water partnerships in 71 nations, although detractors have stated that the replenishment of the water supplies have not improved the livelihoods of the people depending on the water sources. However, this is due to the fact that Coca-Cola’s water replenishment projects are not always implemented in the regions where they draw their water from.

Nonetheless, such projects symbolise a change in how businesses view water, Biswas observed, foreseeing more companies following in Coca-Cola’s footsteps, and noted that the private sector will play an increasingly major role in water conservation and supply in a way that is not recognised in the present time. “We rarely talk about the private sector except in the context of utilities,” he explained.

Though the Pop named access to clean, drinking water a “a basic and human right” in the Laudato Si in 2015, the United Nations (UN) had done so in 2010, but the UN Security Council has not passed it as imperative for governments. When Biswas was asked if the UN Security Council would make water a binding human right in the future, he said, “Chances of that happening in the next ten, or at least the next four years, is zero.”

Unfortunately, his pessimistic point of view has been augmented by developments like President Trump from the United States (US) signing an executive order to undo former President Obama’s Clean Water Act.

Source: The Guardian