New rights and old divisions

In a landmark resolution, the United Nations General Assembly has recognised access to clean water and sanitation as a human right. The 39-state proposal, initiated by Bolivian President Evo Morales, was passed by 122 votes to zero, with 41 member states abstaining. The negotiations leading to the vote, however, were detailed and tense, and showed clear political divisions on North-South lines. The major opposition came from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan and several other industrialised countries together with developing countries known for siding with the U.S. and former colonial powers. Indeed, had Germany and Spain not stated that they would not oppose the resolution, opponents such as the U.K. and Sweden may even have succeeded in conveying the impression that the European Union as a whole had achieved a consensus against it. Some delegations, implausibly in this electronic age, said they did not receive their governments' instructions in time for the vote. Campaigning groups have also said that an attempt was made within the U.N. to derail the resolution, in the form of a prior letter sent by the U.N. Secretary General's Advisory Board to the President of the General Assembly suggesting alterations to the draft resolution; some have implied that this constituted an attempt to impose a neoliberal tone on the draft.

The fact remains, nevertheless, that nearly 900 million people lack access to safe drinking water; nearly two billion people live in water-stressed areas around the world, and three billion live a kilometre or more away from the nearest running water. Over 2.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation, and 1.5 million children under five die every year because of contaminated water or poor sanitation. Writing in The New York Times, Mikhail Gorbachev calls the situation “water apartheid,” and notes that since the end of World War II contaminated water has killed more people than all forms of violence combined. As to major diseases, AIDS, malaria, and measles together do not account for as many deaths as impure water does. The U.N. resolution is non-binding, but it has been hailed as a decisive move in the worldwide struggle for access to safe water as essential to human survival and dignity. Although the vote in the General Assembly has shown political cleavages, the passage of the resolution is a tribute to the tireless work of water-rights NGOs such as the Canada-based Blue Planet Project and to those Latin American states which, having learnt by bitter experience what neoliberalism means in practice, are leading the way towards significant alternatives.

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