The right of every human being to safe drinking water and basic sanitation should be recognized and realized.
The United Nations estimates that nearly 900 million people live without clean water and 2.6 billion without proper sanitation. Water, the basic ingredient of life, is among the world’s most prolific killers. At least 4,000 children die every day from water-related diseases. In fact, more lives have been lost after World War II due to contaminated water than from all forms of violence and war.
This humanitarian catastrophe has been allowed to fester for generations. We must stop it.
Acknowledging that access to safe water and sanitation is a human right is crucial to the ongoing struggle to save these lives; it is an idea that has come of age. It was first proposed a decade ago by civil society organizations, like Green Cross International, which I helped establish in 1992. Today, it is a mainstream demand that many governments and business leaders support. That is a great achievement.
This month, for the first time, the U.N. General Assembly is preparing to vote on a historic resolution declaring the human right to “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation.” It is a pivotal opportunity.
So far, 190 states have acknowledged — directly or indirectly — the human right to safe water and sanitation. In 2007, leaders from the Asia-Pacific region recognized safe drinking water and basic sanitation as human rights and fundamental aspects of security. In March, the European Union affirmed that all states must adhere to their human rights commitments in regard to safe drinking water.
Not all nations are on board, however. The United States and Canada are among the very few that have not formally embraced the right to safe water. Their continued reluctance to officially recognize the right to water should be questioned, not least by their own citizens. President Barack Obama’s national security strategy calls for furthering human rights and sustainable development around the world; that goal should be translated into support for access to water as a human right.
A few other states, like Turkey and Egypt, have also hesitated to formally acknowledge the right to water, mainly because of boundary-related water issues.
However, an absolute global consensus is not essential. The reluctance of a handful of countries cannot derail this vitally important trend.
Recognizing water as a human right is a critical step, but it is not an instant “silver bullet” solution. This right must be enshrined in national laws, and upholding it must be a top priority.