Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Water As a Political Right

Contributed by
Hae Jin Kang

Water. No resource is more important to our health than this liquid. Many countries, however, lack this fundamental need. For instance, only 64% of Uganda has access to clean drinking water and globally, 1.1 billion people do not have this access, with 1.6 million people dying every year from water-induced diseases. But why are countries lacking something as basic as water in the era of globalization and progress? Rarely is it because of an absence of water, but rather because of how governments treat the provision of water in national policies and laws.

Current policies in many countries often do not treat water as a political right or even a basic need that should be provided by the government. As a result, families, especially in rural areas, go without clean water. However, despite this lack of government services in many developing countries, water is clearly defined in several international principles as a political right that must be guaranteed and secured for all. For instance, the Convention on the Rights of Children specifically states the right of children to have water to ensure their best possible health and well being. The right to water is also guaranteed in the Humanitarian Law, which ensures that armed forces do not contaminate enemy’s waters or civilian water sources, such as wells or rivers. While it is clear that international laws deem water as a political right, this view if often not extended to national policies. However, when national policies are amended to address water, access to water is increased all throughout the country, and subsequently, health is improved.

Take South Africa for example. Not until recently was water acknowledged as a political right in South Africa, where the 2010 FIFA World Cup will be held. Following the end of apartheid, the new constitution endorsed a constitutional right to water. But how does this shift in the status of water impact health? Statistics from the 2009 World Health Organization report show that 94% of South Africa now has access to an improved, clean source of water. This is directly influenced by the series of national policies and laws that endeavored to improve access to clean water: the Free Basic Water Policy (2001), Water Services Act (1997), and the National Water Act (1994) to name a few.

Despite this breakthrough, however, South Africa initially faced several challenges in implementing this political right. One instance was when local policies conflicted with the goals of the national laws, which occurred in the Eastern Cape Province when the local government was unable to keep up with the demands of South Africa’s new Free Basic Water Policy. Another challenge was when over half of the people considered “poor” initially were not even aware of their constitutional right to water, thereby hindering the effectiveness of the policy. In addition to the challenges of implementing new policies, privatization of water added to existing complications. Private water companies in South Africa began to impose high rates and began to eliminate access to water to those who could not afford to pay their water bills. As a result, locals in many communities were forced to obtain water from unhealthy and unsanitary alternatives for water, such as lakes and rivers, resulting in the cholera outbreak of 2008. Yet, despite all of these difficulties, South Africa has improved access to clean water for many of its citizen by defining water as a political right and addressing the provision of such in their national policies and agenda.

In Uganda, water policies have also changed to reflect responsibilities of national governments to provide water. For instance, water is a key issue that is recognized in the Poverty Eradication Action Planand since 1997, several reforms have been initiated in the water sector: The National Water Policy (1999), The Water Statute (1995), The National Water and Sewerage Corporation Statute (1995), and the Local Government Act (1997) to name a few. Most importantly, the National Water Policy is based on the principle, “some for all, rather than all for some” adopted from the 1990 “New Delhi Statement” to guarantee access to water for all Ugandans (UNESCO Report)

Yet, only 64% of Uganda has improved access to water, with rural areas even worse off. Why is this so? Although most of the aforementioned policies have been initiated more than ten years ago, many of its provisions are not “fully operational, especially at the local government and local community levels.” Especially in rural areas, the provision of water is harder to locally manage and subsequently, new water policies are harder to implement. As a result, many NGOs and non-profit organizations have taken their own initiative to work directly with rural villages so that communities can have safe water for drinking and sanitation. Currently, Uganda Village Project, among its many health initiatives, works to improve access to safe, clean water in villages in rural Uganda.

Despite the emergence of international initiatives, such as Uganda Village Project, the root of the problem seems to be in how nations define water in their policies and also in how local and national governments cooperate to improve access. Thus, it is crucial to understand water as a political right and understand how volunteers and non-profit organizations “fit in” into the scope of the political structure.

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