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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > May 2013 > Canada and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation

Canada and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation

Wednesday 1 May 2013, by Bradley Castelli

In considering the growing threats of climate change, and the exploitation and mismanagement of natural resources’ impact on the phenomenon, water as a natural resource is often overlooked. While the global community shares a collective interest in preserving sustainable access to fresh water, many governments and corporations continue to take one of our most essential resources for granted in the name of development and profit.

The international community’s tendency to take water as a human right for granted is reflected in the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes no mention of water. This important omission was somewhat remedied through a decade-long campaign by the Council of Canadians and its Blue Planet Project to formally establish water and sanitation as a human right. On July 28, 2010 the UN General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that these are essential to the realization of all human rights (Resolution 64/292). Elaborating on this recognition, the UN asserts that these rights consist of having a sufficient, safe and acceptable supply of water that is accessible as well as affordable. Though recognizing these rights may be essential to the realization of all human rights, it can also serve to clearly identify those states that may be violating human rights as well.

Meera Karunananthan is a water campaigner with the Council of Canadians and Blue Planet Project, and spoke with Alternatives International Journal about water and sanitation as a human right in the context of Canadian governance. While acknowledging the victory in having the UN recognize the human right to water and sanitation, Karunananthan also asserts that, “we are in a context where we need to push for the implementation of the human right to water and sanitation.” Implementation means that water should be recognized in constitutions around the world and that these rights should be reflected in governance approaches to domestic policy.

Karunananthan also warns against corporations jumping on the water and sanitation bandwagon to protect and further their own interests; “we’re in a place where corporations are adopting and co-opting that language in order to redefine the human right to water in a manner that fits with the neoliberal project. Be it privatization of water and sanitation services, or mechanisms to distribute water resources that are market-based so that corporations have greater access to water resources.” Opposing such attempts at redefining the right to water, she stresses that “water is not only a human right, it is a commons. It cannot be privatized, it cannot be sold for profit, nor can it be turned into a commodity. It belongs equally to all as a common resource.”

With the importance of transitioning from recognizing to implementing water and sanitation as a human right in mind, a delegation of Canadian groups, including the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and the Council of Canadians’ Blue Planet Project, traveled to Geneva at the end of April to meet with UN representatives to “draw international attention to Canada’s violations of the human right to water”. The delegation’s trip coincided with Canada’s Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations Human Rights Council on April 26 and hopes to shed light on both the domestic and global impacts of Canada’s negligence toward the human right to water and sanitation. Karunananthan pointed out that “Canada has traditionally blocked the recognition of water as a human right and has not supported the recognition of water as human right internationally until very recently. Canada is required to implement a national action plan on the human right to water and has failed to do so.”

One of the points of emphasis the delegation wants to bring to the UN’s attention deals with the First Nations of Canada. “The condition in First Nations communities across the country is deplorable, a very high number of First Nations communities are living without access to drinking water and sanitation.” The Harper Conservatives are trying to remedy this by privatizing water services in some First Nations communities, which usually equates to inferior service and public access, as well as higher water rates.

Aside from this immediate violation of human rights toward a traditionally marginalized group of Canadians, Karunananthan also notes that, “Canada is also destroying water resources (undermining environmental regulations both in Canada and abroad) in aggressively promoting trade agreements and investment protection agreements. It is also undermining the capacity of governments abroad to protect their water resources.”

Canada’s disregard for the human right to water and sanitation is somewhat blatant when one considers the direction the Harper Conservatives are taking with regard to the Canadian economy. The Alberta Tar Sands require enormous amounts of water for extraction operations and threaten vast supplies of fresh water through tailing ponds and pipeline transportation. Furthermore, the various trade agreements that Canada is party to put it in a position where corporations can sue the Canadian government if they feel environmental regulations are imposing on potential profits, meaning Canadians will have to foot the bill to keep their own fresh water clean. Also, Canadian mining companies have been left to self-regulate, which means that corners are cut abroad when it comes to environmental regulations getting in the way of profits, greatly affecting water supplies around the world. These realities reflect the fact that wealth and abundance, when mismanaged for short-term gain, can impose on and adversely affect the rights and freedoms of present and future generations.

The impact of the delegation that traveled to Geneva to expose Canada’s human rights violations remains to be seen. However, acknowledging water and sanitation as a human right and accountability toward international commitments needs a much more immediate response.