Worldwide, more than one billion people have no access to clean drinking water, 2.6 billion are without adequate sanitation and 1.8 million children die annually from diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation - equal to about 5,000 deaths a day.
No one would deny that the world is in the grip of a water crisis of mammoth proportions. The vast majority of these shortages and the resulting deaths are, of course, in the developing world.
This crisis is getting worse, not better. A number of factors contribute to this trend: global warming, population growth and, perhaps most disturbing of all, privatisation and the commodification of water. While water scarcity is at the heart of this crisis, the international community has failed in its responsibility to adequately and fairly manage the world's water resources and the provision of clean water to those who need it, regardless of their ability to pay.
Part of the struggle for worldwide justice regarding provision of clean water is the fight to get water universally recognised - and codified - and a human right. This struggle has been taken up by the UN and by movements in countries around the globe.
Although the movement for global water justice has forced the UN to address the right to water, water as a human right is not yet enshrined in a full UN covenant. To their shame, Canada, USA, Australia and China continue to vote against such a right, even in the face of endorsement from other world powers. In 2006, the European Parliament officially acknowledged the right to water and, responding to the UN Human Development Report on the worldwide water crisis, the UK reversed its opposing position and recognised water as a right.
In the meantime, many countries are moving beyond the UN efforts and are using their own domestic legislation to codify the right to water. In 2004, Uruguay became the first country in the world to vote for the right to water. Importantly, not only does the Uruguay constitutional amendment include water as fundamental human right, it also states that social considerations must take precedence over economic ones in the development of water policy.
There is enormous global economic pressure, including from the World Bank, to privatise many water services. In the face of such pressure, some countries that have passed right-to-water legislation - including incorporation of the right to water in their constitution - have not included the need for public delivery of water. These countries include South Africa, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya, Belgium, and France.
Uruguay and the Netherlands serve as models for legislation that includes both the right to water and the need to retain public ownership and control of the means of delivery. If profits are to be made from the delivery of clean water from source to the public, issues of access, affordability, equality, and long-term sustainability will not necessarily be primary considerations.
Momentum is building for the universal recognition of water as a human right and the end of water privatisation in all in forms; and women - who are at the core of the water-as-a-human-right argument - must also be at the centre of its resolution.
The scarcity of water disproportionately affects women and their children. Women have, throughout history, been the custodians of water. They are the cooks and the ones who wash up. Women are the ones who need water for the care for their children, in health and in sickness. Women are the ones who walk miles each day to fetch the water, carrying often 20 litres of water on their heads, on their backs, or in their hands, often to the detriment of their health. Women are the ones who often have to walk through isolated territory, over unsafe terrain, in the dark of the early morning or the late evening, risking injury or sexual assault along the way, to fetch the water for their families. Women are the ones who spend hours of their already long working days at these tasks, often waiting hours in line-ups during the dry season to collect water from nearly dry wells. In many cultures, women have to wait until after dark to relieve themselves, suffering discomfort, health impacts, loss of dignity, and often sexual harassment or sexual assault as a result.
Lack of water in the developing world also affects the education of girls. Girls' responsibilities for collecting water prevent many from going to school - held back by families who need their labour. In addition, girls are prevented from attending school, particularly when they are menstruating, because few schools have toilets. According to Britain's Department for International Development, the availability of sanitation increases school attendance for girls by 11 per cent.
For decades, international covenants and conferences have identified the key role played by women in terms of water supply and management. In 1992, the Dublin Resolution of the Water for Life Decade said: "Women play a central role in the provision, management and safeguarding of water and sanitation and must be involved in all water-related development efforts". In 2006, the Women's Caucus Declaration at the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico City opened with a quote from the UN Secretary General: "The [United Nations General] Assembly also stressed the need to involve women in all water-related development efforts. In many cultures, ...women are the guardians of water... they need to be able to participate more meaningfully in decision-making on how water is used and managed, so that their countries can make full use of their knowledge, skills and contributions."
And yet, most of the decisions about water - whether in local communities or in the global arena - continue to be made by men. Few women are at the table when decisions are made about strategies on how to ensure clean water, how to slow global warming, how to maintain water as a public resource, or how to ensure that the delivery of water is a government responsibility rather than a profit-making enterprise.
(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)
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