By Maude Barlow and Paul Moist, Citizen Special, December 7, 2009
Nothing screams injustice like the increasing lack of access to water. Water is a basic necessity of life, yet 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe, potable water and 2.6 billion do not have access to sanitation.
We usually hear about impacts on water resulting from climate change, including melting glaciers, increased flooding in some places and extreme water scarcity in others. But our abuse, mismanagement, and treatment of water is actually one of the causes, and we have not placed that analysis at the centre of our thinking about climate change and environmental destruction. Until we do, we are only addressing half the question.
Yet water will not be part of the official agenda at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, starting today, when government representatives from around the world discuss ways to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Any agreement that comes out of Copenhagen must promote viable alternatives that ensure a fair share for all. And this means ensuring that increasing water shortages and the lack of access to water are addressed immediately.
As climate change accelerates, all of the world’s climate refugees will be water refugees. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington argues that in 1995, 166 million people lived in areas lacking sufficient water for basic needs. In 2050, that number will rise to 1.7 billion.
Mitigating climate change means addressing the water crisis. The 2008 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change and water warned that changes in water quantity and quality would affect the availability of food and lead to greater poverty among rural farmers in the Global South.
Water must be recognized as a human right, meaning that all people must have access to a reasonable amount of water for basic needs without discrimination. Universal access to water must be managed collectively and democratically to ensure that it is distributed equitably and sustainably.
Representatives from the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Council of Canadians, the Indigenous Environmental Network and other participating groups are taking this message to Copenhagen. We will join other water justice advocates in demanding that water issues be a key element in climate talks. With increasing water shortages, this is the only way to ensure that all people have their fair share of this vital resource.
In the absence of these safeguards, the growing demand for an increasingly scarce water supply has made it a coveted commodity for private business interests. On a recent trip overseas, Industry Minister Tony Clement pontificated about the global water crisis before making a sales pitch promoting Canadian technological “solutions.” Michigan has launched its plan for a “blue economy” that would allow business entrepreneurs to benefit from expensive technological fixes. These “fixes” not only absolve governments of the duty to protect freshwater resources, they take water out of the hands of communities and place it in the hands of large corporations seeking large profits.
To make matters worse, trade rules with far more binding power than international human rights laws or environmental agreements have undermined the ability of governments to protect the environment or the public interest against the rights of a corporation to make profits. The North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, allows foreign investors to sue governments if a social or environmental policy were to restrict profits.
There are many water issues affecting Canadians, including the impacts industries such as mining and bottled water are having on water supplies, the First Nations drinking water crisis in Canada, the privatization of water systems, etc. We must promote strategies that recognize the central role of water in maintaining healthy communities.
Climate change and the ensuing water shortages must not breathe new life into a failed economic model of unregulated free trade. International discussions must instead generate a new model. We are at a crossroads and the right choices can set us on a course to environmental and economic recovery. We can learn from past mistakes and build plans based on justice for people and the environment.
Maude Barlow is national chairperson of the Council of Canadians. Paul Moist is national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.