One year ago today, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a historic resolution recognizing the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. Two months later, the Human Rights Council adopted a second resolution affirming that drinking water and sanitation are human rights, and setting out the responsibilities all governments now carry to fulfill these rights.
Because the Human Rights Council resolution is an interpretation of two existing international treaties, it clarifies that the General Assembly resolution is legally binding in international law. Together, the two resolutions represent an extraordinary breakthrough in the international struggle for the right to safe drinking water and sanitation and a milestone in the fight for water justice.
For the past decade, Ottawa has consistently opposed recognizing the right to water and sanitation. The Harper government voted to abstain when the General Assembly vote took place, and then argued (incorrectly) that the resolution is not binding. Canada and Tonga are now the only countries in the world that have not recognized the right to water or the right to sanitation.
The only explanation the Harper government gives is that it's concerned about Canada's sovereignty over its water supply, an argument that's been debunked by international legal experts who point out that a newly recognized right is a pact between a government and its own citizens and doesn't oblige one country to fulfill that right in another. The more likely reason is that, with an enforceable obligation, the government would likely face extensive liability with respect to the terrible drinking water and sanitation conditions in so many first nations communities.
There are at least 49 "high risk" aboriginal communities in Canada with little access to clean water and more than 100 facing "boil water" advisories. First nations homes are 90 per cent more likely to be without running water than the homes of other Canadians. And unlike other Canadians, whose water services are provided by the provinces, the federal government is responsible for the delivery of public services to first nations. But the Indian Act doesn't explicitly authorize the protection of source water and, as a consequence, says environmental lawyer David Boyd, first nations people on reserves are without the legal guarantees of water quality enjoyed by the other 34 million Canadians.
The UN's recognition of the human right to water and sanitation could become a powerful tool for the first nations to force the Canadian government to deal with this situation. Canada, like all members of the UN, must put in place an action plan and submit it to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This plan is required to address three obligations that affect aboriginal communities.
Under the obligation to respect, water and sanitation services now delivered can't be removed. But as local authorities move to increase water rates to pay for aging infrastructure repair or lease their water services to for-profit companies, poorer and marginalized Canadians can expect to start seeing water cutoffs as is happening in U.S. inner cities.
Under the obligation to protect, governments must step in to ensure that third parties such as corporations or extractive industries aren't destroying local water systems. The Cree of Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta could argue that their right to safe drinking water has been violated by the destruction of water sources in tar sands production, as could the Aamjiwnaang of Sarnia, Ont., whose water supply has been so contaminated by the petrochemical industry that two girls are born for every boy.
And under the obligation to fulfill, the government is required to take additional measures necessary to guarantee the newly recognized right. This means it must pledge to provide the safe drinking water and sanitation services to the first nations communities now without.
"Do you have running water? I don't and I live in Canada." These words are on posters that the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs took to the UN in an attempt to gain international recognition of their plight. It's time for the Canadian government to recognize this most basic of rights, in Canada and around the world.
Maude Barlow is national chair of the Council of Canadians and author of Our Right to Water .
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