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The Right to Water

Water, along with clean air and healthy food, is a primary determinant of health, fundamental to life itself. Yet over a billion people worldwide lack access to safe and sufficient water. The figures are shocking: According to the WHO, 1.7 billion people (one in six, worldwide) lack access to clean water and 2.4 billion to improved sanitation. Lack of clean drinking water leads to 2.3 billion cases of disease each year.

Water is a common resource to which we all have an equal right, as well as a responsibility. In 2002, the United Nations Economic and Social Council adopted water as a right, to ensure fair and non-discriminatory access to safe drinking water. However, the right to water is violated daily: Water-borne diseases occur not only due to governments' inability to provide clean water, but increasingly due to the unaffordable pricing of water by private sector providers.

While several UN Agencies are making water a priority, public water utilities are being steadily degraded and transferred from public management to private ownership, in many cases resulting in higher rates, poorer service, and the failure of services to reach those most in need. Pre-paid water meters are increasingly being installed in poor areas to ensure profitable supply, and services are cut-off if citizens fall behind on their payments.

A 2006 report by the World Development Movement and Public Services International, critical of private sector water management, sums up one aspect of the privatization crisis in this way: “Collectively in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia (excluding China), only 600,000 new household connections have been made as a result of investment by private sector operators since 1997, extending access to around 3 million people. One billion people in these regions are estimated to need connecting to a clean water supply between 2006 and 2015 in order to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to drinking water and basic sanitation: a rate of 270,000 people a day.

Over the last nine years, the private sector has connected just 900 people a day.” At the same time, the water crisis is exacerbated by toxic pollution, overuse of water resources by extractive industries (mining, oil, and gas), and industrial agriculture (the largest user of fresh water worldwide).

Climate change and global warming lead to unpredictable trends in water supply, and ever-increasing urbanization prevents precious groundwater from infiltrating into subterranean aquifers, causing it instead to run into waterways and eventually to the world's oceans, where it becomes salinated and of little use for drinking. In order to resolve the water crisis in its human and ecological dimensions, action is needed on many fronts.

Fortunately, awareness of the crisis is growing, and a global movement has coalesced over the past decade, whose goal is to protect and preserve our water and promote a binding United Nations Convention on Water as Human Right.

The water movement includes social movements and grassroots organizations, progressive social scientists, and NGOs whose political analysis is similar to that of PHM, and whose advocacy goals at an international level (opposing the privatisation of water services, advocating for governmental responsibility in supplying adequate water supplies, and promoting democratic and community-based management of water utilities) are compatible with PHM's goals.

Friends of the Right to Water (based in Canada) and Red Vida (a network of PanAmerican water advocates, based in Latin America) are leaders in this movement, among others. The People's Health Movement has an important role to play in providing the health analysis to the Water Rights Movement.

This module will include material on the political economy of water as it relates to community health, as well as material to aid health workers in directly providing water and sanitation services, whether this means community-level purification of water, protection of water supplies, or the design of latrines that can prevent contamination of water supplies. Reports Spreading the Water Wealth, from International Rivers Network Pipe Dreams: The failure of the private sector to invest in water services in developing countries from World Development Movement and Public Services International Beyond Privatisation, from the Pacific Institute

Educational Resources

Hesperian Foundation Range of useful booklets on Water and Sanitation

Further Reading

Blue October A website decidated to building a grassroots campaign for the right to water. Lists many of the key organizations involved in the campaign, with links to their websites.

Food and Water Watch Food and Water Watch, a spin-off from Public Citizen, is major U.S.-based NGO involved in promoting the right to water and campaigning against privatization.

Blue Planet Blue Planet Project, a Canadian organization, hosts the secretariat of the international Friends of the Right to Water coalition, and produces regular reports on the struggle for community-led, participatory water management.

Water Aid WaterAid U.K. is one of the major NGO's worldiwde devoted to implementing water and sanitation projects, and has a strong campaign for the right to water.

Africa Water Network The website of the burgeoning Africa Water Network, established as a potent force on that continent during the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi.

Red Vida Red Vida is the network of groups in the Americas, centered in Latin America, campaigning against privatization and for community-led, participatory water management.

Corporate Europe Observatory: Water Justice This is the water portal for Corporate Europe Observatory, one of the main groups in Europe, and worldwide, campaigning for the right to water. Their book, Reclaiming Public Water, is one of the best resources on the subject and is available here in many languages.

Pacific Institute Pacific Institute is a California-based policy think tank with global reach, which has released and continues to release detailed reports on the state of the world's water, and the struggle to maintain it for all.

Corporate Accountability International: Expose Bottled Water Corporate Accountability International has a strong and successful campaign to expose the bottled water industry for its abuses.

Global Global Water Initiative created in response to world water crisis

Guayaquil Bechtel Deceives the People Again

WHO/UNICEF (2005). Water for life: Making it happen

Articles on Water in the Israel/Palestine Conflict

Pulling Heart Strings For Profit: How The Bottled Water Industry Is Fighting The Backlash Richard Girard, The Polaris Institute, March 13, 2008


Water and Health (Jeff Conant, Atlanta IPHU, July 2007) PowerPoint 765kb or PDF 482 kb


This topic developed by Jeff Conant.

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