By focusing on access rather than on rights, the UN sustainable development goal on water won't eliminate inequality
A Unicef team collects water from the Nile to be treated with chlorine near Juba in South Sudan. Photograph: Charles Lomodong/AFP/Getty Images
One of the biggest threats to economic and social development is that the world's freshwater supplies are rapidly becoming scarce and polluted. A new set of actors are now engaging in the global development arena to define and write the rules of access to water.
It is alarming to see that the human right to water and sanitation continues to be marginalised in UN policy discussions. The exclusion of this right to water in the most recent draft of the sustainable development goals reveals policy more conducive to promoting water security for economic growth than ensuring the preservation of watersheds and the equitable distribution of scarce water supplies.
When the UN general assembly passed a resolution in 2010 affirming water and sanitation as a human right, it was celebrated as a victory for communities dealing with the health impacts of polluted water, the indignity of not having access to clean drinking water and sanitation or the inability to produce food owing to water shortages. Social movements saw the human right to water and sanitation as a tool in the fight against a global water crisis produced by inequality, social exclusion and abuse of the water commons.
The global water crisis is also a big concern for industries seeking secure access to water supplies to sustain and expand operations in a never-ending quest for economic growth. The extractive industries, large drinks companies, big banks investing in water stocks, and companies involved in providing water and sanitation services have positioned themselves as stakeholders within global water policy discussions and as being able to provide solutions to the crisis.
The latest trend in global and national water policy is for corporations to participate in decision-making bodies and promote corporate-driven solutions through public-private partnerships. Over the past decade or so, the efforts of corporations such as Nestlé and Unilever to engage in global water policy discussions has shifted the debate from one of injustice and inequality to a depoliticised discussion of scarcity solved by technological fixes. These are offered by multinational corporations and market mechanisms that further deregulate water resource allocation.
When global policymakers – including the working group on sustainable development goals (SDGs) – focus simply on improving "water efficiency" for these ever-expanding industries without anchoring discussions of access to water as a right, they are ignoring communities that are challenging the very presence of the industries that are destroying watersheds.
The human right to water and sanitation holds promise for these communities. It has been invoked in Plachimada, in south India, to challenge Coca Cola's access to aquifers; by anti-mining activists throughout Latin America; and, more recently, by the Kalahari Bushmen in a struggle to access traditional water sources on land coveted by industries such as tourism, diamond mining and fracking.
It has also been used to democratise water and sanitation services. In Uruguay, recognition of the human right to water led to the ban of private water services. When a recent ruling by a top Greek court blocked the privatisation of the country's largest water utility, in Athens, it was a victory for activists across Europe who had condemned forced privatisation through loan conditions in bailout packages for Greece, Portugal and Italy.
So it is deeply troubling that the human right to water continues to be contested at the UN. For those living without access to adequate drinking water and sanitation, the SDG on water focuses on universal access. As special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque argues that an emphasis on universality alone fails to eliminate inequality.
At the very minimum, the human right to water calls for the elimination of discrimination and the adoption of special measures for marginalised communities. Social movements pursuing public control over water supplies, and democratic and participatory governance models, are also drawn to the elements of public participation in decision-making, accountability and access to justice underscored by the human right to water.
While this right is hardly the silver bullet for all global water woes, it goes a long way towards balancing unequal power relationships.