KYOTO — Is access to water a basic human right? This is one of the fundamental questions government delegates to the World Water Forum are grappling with as they prepare for a ministerial conference this weekend.

But with war looming in Iraq, only about two-thirds of the registered 170 countries and 40 international organizations were on hand Wednesday morning for the start of a two-day meeting of high-level bureaucrats to prepare for the weekend sessions. The officials are discussing the draft text of a declaration that will be presented to ministers for final approval.

The current declaration draft touches on five areas regarding water. It urges:

National governments to take the lead in advancing water issues with support from international organizations.

Local communities to do more in promoting water policies.

More people, including NGOs and women, to participate in the decision-making process.

Better monitoring and governance of institutions involved in water issues.

Increased public- and private-sector financial support for the water sector.

The draft, however, does not include a clause stating that water is a human right.

Many nongovernmental organizations, and reportedly some government ministers, are seeking to incorporate this concept in accordance with a general comment issued in November by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights:

That access to water for personal and domestic use is a human right fundamental to life and health.

The issue is controversial because of the moral and practical ramifications it poses.

“I don’t think anybody has a problem with defining water as a fundamental necessity,” said Tim Cullen, a former World Bank official who is now a consultant to the Asian Development Bank. “But when you get into the issue of water as a right, you place a burden upon governments that they may not be able to bear.”

NGOs argue that the inclusion of such language will help create a moral mandate for governments to provide water and sanitation to all, regardless of potential profits or losses.

“We went through this battle over whether or not to include water as a human right (in official documentation) three years ago at the 2nd World Water Forum in The Hague, and lost,” Canadian NGO activist Maude Barlow said. “This forum is a corporate lobby, and it doesn’t want water as a human right included (in the final declaration) because it would take away water as a tradable commodity.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.