Turning the Tides on World Water Day

In July 2010 a breakthrough decision by the UN General Assembly finally declared the universal human right to safe drinking water and sanitation; a major victory after over a decade of campaigning, spearheaded by Green Cross International and other civil society groups.  However as important as this step was, the next 12 months will be vital in bridging the gap between law and reality. In exactly one year the 2012 World Water Forum will open in the French city of Marseille.  Three months later, a UN summit will be held in Brazil to mark 20 years since the seminal Rio Earth Summit. The run up to 2012 presents a watershed opportunity to consolidate years of progress on water governance – much of it achieved through tireless work by civil society.

Water has long been the poor relation in the sustainable development family.   Although diarrhoea caused by dirty water is the second biggest killer of children under five, funding for water and sanitation declined from an already low 8% of total development assistance to just 5% between 1997 and 2008, according to a 2010 UN report.  And most of that does not go to the world’s poorest countries, or people.  Providing water and basic sanitation to those most in need clearly remains a low political priority.  But without it communities will never escape poverty, and money spent on other sectors, such as education and health, may ultimately be in vain.
 
As progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals is ascertained in the run up to the Rio+20 Summit, a particularly bright spotlight must be shone on the goal to halve the proportion of people without safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.  While, on a global level, the drinking water target is on track, the likelihood of meeting the sanitation goal is looking bleaker than ever, and at the current rates of progress, the goal will not be met in Sub-Saharan Africa for two centuries, forget three years.  The UN has identified a USD 18.4 billion a year funding gap that needs to be filled between now and 2015 to meet the water and sanitation goals, to reach the billion people who currently stand to miss out.
 
The people worst affected by the crisis in water and sanitation provision are the world’s most vulnerable, in many cases women and children in remote rural areas and urban slums.  These people are often said to have no voice and no power, but after the UN decision, further bolstered by a subsequent resolution by the Human Rights Council, it can no longer be said that they have no rights. 
 
Governments now have a clear legal responsibility to ensure the provision of safe water and sanitation services for everyone.  This is not charity, it is international law, and must now be enshrined in state legislations, constitutions and development action plans.  Those fighting for the realization of the right to water and sanitation must not rest on the laurels of these resolutions. 
 
Two other areas where international law and policy related to water urgently needs consolidation are transboundary watercourses and the role of water in the fight against climate change.  On both these issues, as with the movement to recognize the human right to water, momentum is being driven by focused coalitions of NGOs with the help of small numbers of champion governments.  As the human rights victory has proven, such movements can create breakthroughs, especially if the public is behind them.
 
The focus for improving the governance of water, and the prevention of conflicts, in the world’s over 260 watercourses shared by two or more states, must be effecting the entry into force of the 1997 Convention on the Non-Navigation Uses of International Watercourses.  After nearly fifteen years, and steady campaigning by GCI and partners, there is finally real political momentum behind this crucial Convention.  I commend the efforts of France to promote the entry into force of the Convention before the Marseille World Water Summit next year.  
 
Just thirteen more states need to ratify the Convention in order to realize this goal – which could be achieved if the remaining EU states joined France, Germany, Spain and others in acceding to the Convention.  Without this, cooperation frameworks exist for just 40% of the world’s international watercourses and disputes and inefficiencies stand to prevail.  It is time to end this anomaly, and embrace this international instrument for the fair and effective management of shared water.  Marseille and Rio in 2012 will be the ideal opportunities to welcome this too long neglected Convention into the family – if enough governments sign up.
 
The Cancun climate change talks in December 2010 were hailed as a turning point, but an achievement that went largely under the radar was the long-awaited acknowledgment that water must be accorded far higher priority in climate change negotiations.  States must now follow this up at the next round of talks in Bonn in June by finally including water in the context of an international climate change agreement.  
 
To reiterate, investing in water and sanitation is not charity.  It is an investment in people, allowing them to become productive, healthy citizens and contributors to their communities.  It is an investment in peace, removing a potential cause of conflict – whether between neighbouring farmers, tribes, or nations.  It is an investment in the future, a key element in increasing our resilience to climate change and natural disasters.  Green Cross is working on all these related issues, while also demonstrating that small amounts of well-targeted water assistance can transform communities through our grassroots projects like the “Smart Water for Green Schools” initiative.
 
Much can be achieved in the next twelve months if these remaining gaps are closed and water is accorded the position it deserves.  I look forward to seeing very focused international governance and leadership seizing this opportunity. The countdown to 2012 has begun.
 
By Alexander Likhotal, President of Green Cross International
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