The water crisis – a cultural crisis?
To close the United Nations International Year of Freshwater, the University of Applied Sciences Basle and Zurich University together with the Conseil International des Femmes à Genève organised a symposium on 6 and 7 November 2003 in Geneva with the theme «Cultural diversity and international solidarity». We reproduce hereunder the contribution of Rosmarie Bör, Swiss Coalition / Alliance Sud.
Anyone thinking about the future of humanity must take water into account. Water has become a fateful question. As the UN General Assembly declared the year 2003 the International Year of Freshwater, Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that the global water crisis had become the major challenge facing the international community. The UN environmental authority UNEP reiterated the same theme by stating that the freshwater crisis was on the same scale and potentially just as dangerous as climate change.
Any discussion of water must entail a discussion of policy. But not «merely» of classical development policy. Water policy is just as closely tied in with land and farm policy, trade and economic policy, environmental, social, healthcare and gender policy. But above all, water policy is human rights and cultural policy. For nothing has pervaded the history of human civilisation and its cultures as much as the handling, distribution and use of water.
Promise and reality
The water crisis is not primarily a matter for planners and engineers. It cannot be addressed merely through technical measures, greater efficiency and capacity expansion. It calls for policy measures first and foremost. It needs what is today called good governance. The struggle to secure a sustainable water policy is one for social change, for economic advancement and social justice. Above all, it calls for the political will to act.
It is no chance matter that the UN has placed the International Year of Freshwater under the responsibility of UNESCO, the specialised agency for culture and education. UNESCO clearly defines how water should be viewed: this precious resource is one of nature's treasures and part of the cultural heritage of mankind. In April of this year UNESCO published for the first time a comprehensive world water development report entitled «Water for People – Water for Life». It states clearly where the main cause of the crisis lies: owing to political inaction, the water shortage in many regions of the world is assuming hitherto unsuspected proportions.
On both sides there is a lack of political will to act. Hence the water crisis. This becomes perfectly clear when we recall what the international community had stated at the first major UN Water Conference in 1977 in Mar del Plata: «All peoples […] have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic needs.» It was then promised that by 2000 every human being would have access to drinking water of good quality and sufficient quantity.
The facts portray a different picture. A few figures should bear this out:
- 1.4 billion people lack access to clean drinking water.
- 6000 children are dying each day from the consequences of polluted water.
- 3 billion people have no sanitary facilities.
- 840 million people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Water and food shortage go hand-in-hand. This has always been so.
Public development funds have simultaneously been dwindling steadily over the past 10 years – contrary to all promises. At the same time, more money is being spent annually in Europe and the USA on dog and cat food than would be needed to provide access to clean drinking water for all humanity.
What these figures translate to in words is the following: lack of water is leading to increased hunger, poverty, misery and disease, as well as desertification. People migrate, people are obliged to flee. Social unrest, conflicts and the danger of war over the use of water are being compounded. The upshot is that the question sign in the title of this article is out of place. A policy crisis is also invariably a social and cultural crisis.
Uppermost on the international community's list of arguments is lack of funds, the reason why billions of people continue to live in degrading conditions and without water. The World Bank has announced that it will take as much as USD 180 billion annually to achieve the UN Millennium Goals with respect to water. That is twice as much as is currently being spent. This figure was nevertheless sharply contested by the Chairman of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) at the annual meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in New York last spring. If we forego high-tech and high-cost projects, USD 10 billion per year would be enough to provide water and sanitary facilities for all. This difference in funding requirements is more than just a fuss over figures. It reflects a fundamentally different view of people and conception of the world. To put it graphically: here, massive dams with the inevitable forced resettlements, there, small-scale irrigation plants for basic food supplies and self-managed springs for drinking water.
A matter of will, not money
The money could be easily obtained. States and development organizations need only stand by what they subscribed to at the 1995 UN World Social Summit in Copenhagen: the 20:20 initiative. Under this initiative, industrialised countries are to reserve 20 per cent of their development aid for basic social needs. These also include low-cost drinking water supply systems and sanitary facilities. Developing countries in turn must invest 20 per cent of their budget in this realm. This forward-looking solution was not implemented anywhere in the world. That reflects the prevailing spirit of the times. Individual States hardly ever keep the political promises made at the major UN conferences of the 1990s. The action plans – from the 1992 Rio Agenda 21 to the 2002 Johannesburg action programme – hardly ever move beyond the paper stage. Instead, policymakers have used the WTO agreements to pave the way for economic globalisation, throwing the door wide open to liberalisation and privatisation. It is more than fatal when good governance means that governmental responsibility for the basic needs of people and for protecting resources vital to life is relegated to multinational corporations and placed in the invisible hand of the market.
Landmark legal commentary
The most fundamental commitment assumed in the UN framework is the protection of human rights. This includes the right to water. States have the duty to realise this human right for all. In November 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC) issued what may be regarded as a landmark General Comment (No. 15) on the right to water: Water should be treated as a social and cultural good, and not primarily as an economic good. The Committee clearly opposes the commercialisation and commodification by which water is being degraded to a run-of-the-mill, tradable good.
Opinions diverge on this question of principle. Is water a public good belonging to humanity, like the air and the climate, or is it a tradable commodity like paper clips or paper tissues? Should the source of life become a source of profits? In other words, who owns water? Who is responsible for providing everyone with access to clean water? The public or the private sector?
Privatisation for the benefit of multinationals
These questions have been around since the water issue became caught in the maelstrom of worldwide liberalisation. The taskmasters are the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. They are pressing poor and indebted developing countries to combat their poverty by liberalising and privatising public services. Along with education and healthcare, these also include water supply systems. Thus Mozambique, for example, had to sell off the water supply system in the capital Maputo so that the country could obtain debt forgiveness. Cameroon, Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana and other countries had the same experience. It is invariably a handful of water multinationals from France, Germany and the USA that have a chance. They are dividing up the world of water amongst themselves. Cities such as Manila, Karachi, Casablanca, Jakarta, Buenos Aires and Panama are under the control of Veolia (formerly Vivendi), Suez (France), the RWE Group from Essen (Germany) or Bechtel (USA).
A new form of colonialism and a new power divide are emerging with respect to the life-sustaining resource that is water. Cultural diversity in dealing with water and international solidarity are losing importance. Local people's democratic rights of co-decision, transparency and the duty of accountability are falling by the wayside. A culture of sharing and preservation is being displaced by the dictate of profit maximisation and purchasing power. Hence, decisions are being taken in Lyon (France), for example, as to who will receive what quality of water and on what terms in Buenos Aires or Manila. The profits from the water business are flowing abroad. This is a significant financial drain on the countries. The multinationals have no qualms about prematurely withdrawing from the agreements when the profits do not meet their expectations. Such was recently the case in Manila (see SCN No. 36). Under the GATS negotiations (General Agreement on Trade in Services of the World Trade Organisation, WTO) the European Union is demanding that 72 developing countries open up their local water supply system to foreign providers. The European Union is in this way yielding to pressure from its international water giants, which are keen to expand their business.
The corporations are interested in the urban pipeline systems, where there is a sufficient number of customers who are able to pay. Water prices are often increased so sharply that the poorer population groups can no longer afford water and therefore revert to contaminated river water. This was what occurred in South Africa, with a cholera epidemic as the outcome. Rural dwellers without access to water remain so, as do those in big city slums. We are not a bucket or faucet closer to realising the UN millennium goal of providing more people with a basic supply of water.
An international convention is needed
A new approach is called for if the water crisis is to be overcome. It is called sustainability. The only sustainable approach is the equitable and fair distribution of water between the various user groups, between States, and between man and nature. The international community embraced this landmark principle at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
In other words, like the air we breathe, water must remain a public good, for both are irreplaceable. Today, water is in need of global protection under international law. There is a huge void here. International law must ensure for all people on earth a basic supply of water, access to clean drinking water, fair distribution and protection from water pollution. Local traditional cultural and water rights of people also need the protection of international law. The Climate Convention enshrines the atmosphere as a «common good of humanity». Water must be protected in exactly the same way by an international convention, a water convention.
As representatives of civil society and of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) we have a duty to hold our governments to supporting a water convention internationally. Our work can be helped if we again make clear that the contemporary word culture has its roots in the Latin concept «cultura». It means cultivate – inhabit – care for – respect.
As the basis of all life, water calls for a code of ethics. Responsible water policies must be inspired by the principles of precaution and consideration, the notion of justice and solidarity. It is water itself that teaches us the ethics. The following story should bear this out.
A wise man in ancient China was once asked by his disciples: «You've been standing for some time now beside this river, looking into the water. What do you see there?»
The wise man did not reply. He did not remove his gaze from the ceaselessly flowing water. At last he said: «The water teaches us how we should live.
Wherever it flows it brings life and distributes itself to all who need it. It is kind and generous. It knows how to smooth out rugged terrain. It is fair. Without hesitating in its course, it plunges over steep precipices into the depths. It is courageous. Its surface is smooth and even, yet it can form hidden depths. It is wise. It flows around rocks standing in its way. It is peaceable. But its gentle power works day and night to remove any obstacle. It is untiring. Irrespective of the number of turns it must take, it never looses sight of the direction toward its eternal destination, the sea. It is single-minded.
And however often it is polluted, it endeavours unceasingly to become clean again. It has the power to renew itself time and again. It is for all these reasons», said the wise man, «that I gaze at the water. It teaches me true life.»
Stated in my own words: water policy thus becomes what it must be – human rights and peace policy.
Contact: Rosmarie Bär, Alliance Sud