By Sergio Ferrari
Water Public good or merchandise subject to privatization? Is an International Convention on water necessary? And, particularly, if this Convention is reached, will the fate of the 1.2 billion people who today lack the vital liquid really change? All this within the framework of a planetary reality that has its limits.
On March 22, world water day is celebrated. This is a good opportunity to take stock of an ongoing debate that has been promoting global civil society for some years now and that touches on sensitive aspects. Public good or merchandise subject to privatization? Is an International Convention on water necessary? And, particularly, if this Convention is reached, will the fate of the 1.2 billion people who today lack the vital liquid really change? All this within the framework of a planetary reality that has its limits. Only 2.5% of the total existing water is fresh and therefore for human use. Reservations are not eternal ...
Questions all analyzed on the third Friday of March in Bern, Switzerland, in a seminar-debate organized by the Southern Alliance, a platform that brings together six of the most active Swiss NGOs working in the field of development.
X-ray of infamy
Currently and according to United Nations figures, 1.2 billion people do not have access to a sufficient amount of water to satisfy their basic needs at a price commensurate with their financial means. Of which, almost 100 million live in Latin America.
If no significant and rapid action is taken, it is estimated that in 2015 that figure will rise to 3 trillion. Thus entering into contradiction with the United Nations Millennium Goals, which until then seek to achieve a significant reduction in poverty, including limitations on access to drinking water.
Behind this reality, a double observation. The enormous interests of large transnational companies that have multiplied their profits in recent years with privatizations and the bottling of water.
Likewise, the lack of political will. The 10 billion dollars that would make it possible to solve the water problem annually - and its consequences in diseases and premature deaths - could be obtained if the five-day world military budget were allocated to that objective.
Which explains that international NGOs that met in November 2006 in Marseille, France, launched two basic demands. That 1% of the current military budget be set aside for the improvement of water distribution and sanitation services. And that each inhabitant of the planet be guaranteed 40 liters of quality water, at least, per day.
Some steps forward
A look back allows us to indicate progress in the planetary reflection on water, which has become one of the most widely debated topics both in the United Nations institutions and in alternative forums.
The 2006 report of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) asks governments to recognize access as a human right and to provide their citizens with drinking water to avoid diseases.
On November 27 of last year, the Human Rights Council commissioned the United Nations High Commissioner to promote a study to be presented before September 2007 on “… equitable access to drinking water… according to international human rights laws… "
Despite these concrete steps, access to safe water remains a huge pending challenge. And when it comes to future challenges, one of them is the need for an International Convention on the subject, as emphasized by Rosemarie Bär, head of development policy for the Swiss NGO platform.
While that Convention would not magically solve all problems, it would define a new planetary institutional framework. Considering the right to water as a fundamental human right - legally binding - and protecting the reserves and their nature as a public good of humanity.
Division of "waters"
The proposal for an International Convention also motivates Maude Barlow, president of the “Council of Canadians”, co-founder of the “Blue Planet Project” and an alternative Nobel Prize that was awarded to her for her ecological commitment.
For Barlow, said United Nations Convention would serve as a model for the constitutions of the different states.
"Water not Coca-Cola", emphasizes the Canadian social activist to differentiate the concept of public good from that of negotiable merchandise. And while the fight to ensure access to water continues to be the most important part of the global movement for the defense of the vital liquid, the Convention is projected as a dynamic goal that unites the movement, he says.
The view from Latin America
"Water is one of the main spaces of struggle in Latin America, outraged by the growing privatization process applied throughout the planet" underlines the Mexican jurist Rodrigo Gutiérrez Rivas, who claims the value of an international treaty.
"They are different aspects of the same strategy," reiterates the young researcher from the National University of Mexico (UNAM) and a member of COMDA, the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water.
Who considers “that the resounding failure of the privatizations of water companies” in Latin America and the new stage of democratic construction that this continent is experiencing, “assign a very important role to the mobilization for the vital liquid. It is a very heartfelt demand, every day, in every neighborhood, town or region ... "
And it refers to the anti - privatization combats in Bolivia and Argentina. To the broad citizen mobilization for recognition as a constitutional right in Uruguay. To the growing mobilization in Mexico.
And the experience does not finish enriching itself, maintains the young Aztec militant. As evidenced by the current struggle in La Perota, Guerrero state, near Acapulco, against a dam that will flood 7,000 hectares.
"It is a paradigmatic combat" because it is about peasants threatened with being unemployed, he maintains. That promote a combined strategy of political and legal resources. And that also claims water as a fundamental right. What “assures them a certain protection and recognition. And in any case it prevents them from being treated as subversive and, therefore, criminalized, ”he says.
Reflection on water multiplies arguments and ignites passions. Numerous social conflicts in Latin America - and in the South in general - have exploded in recent years as a result of the privatization of this precious asset. Civil society and particularly social movements accept the challenge launched. They enter the game of ideas, take a position, pressure governments and international institutions and deepen a necessary debate.
Particularly important in this era - 2005 / 2010- marked by the Millennium Goals and designated by the United Nations as the international decade “Water as a source of life”.
* Sergio Ferrari *, from Geneva, Switzerland
In collaboration with E-CHANGER, Swiss NGO for solidarity cooperation