A World Water Treaty?

There is so far no global agreement or treaty to establish and codify our various roles, rights and responsibilities with respect to fresh water.  This is being blocked by a lack of consensus.  The United Nations seems clear that “Access to safe water is a fundamental human need, and therefore a basic human right”, according to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and there are many who agree.

This approach certainly validates global investment in water and sanitation systems to meet the needs of deprived peoples.  Such investment could be in the form of tax-funded public giving, which would be straightforward but expensive.  Meeting the UN goal of halving the proportion of people who lack a secure water supply by 2015 would need an extra investment of US$15 billion per year.

On the other hand, the world now spends US$100 billion a year on bottled water, so perhaps the deterrent cost of public global investment on water and sanitation more political than financial?

Such investment could also be in the private supply of water and sanitation, which many governments prefer as it seems cheaper and more effective, and gets rid of their own responsibility.  But if big corporations based in richer countries can do the job, they ask and lobby, why should tax payers in the same countries compete with them by giving water systems away?

The challenge, though, is that for profits to be made, people who use water must pay for it, and without fierce and effective supervision, corporations will tend to charge too much and cut corners.  The story of water privatisation worldwide is littered with cases in which corporations have negotiated monopoly contracts, only to rack up prices and renege on sewage treatment promises.

But it is possible to get private corporations constructively involved, provided that water users and local and national governments  keep an eye on them, to prevent profiteering and enforce the terms of agreements, and provided that the system is designed with ecology in mind.

There’s no particular reason why a private corporation, rather than a public utility, should not sell clean water and sewage services to those who can afford them, provided that those who can’t pay also have reasonable access (which is where a right to water and a targeting of public funds would come in), and provided that they are also held responsible for both the downstream environment that absorb wastes and the upstream ecosystems that provide the water.

It is rare but feasible for a city administration to arrange for water charges to be shared with local people who live in and around water catchments upon which the city depends, in return for safeguarding the forests there.  In this context, forest and catchment managers are just as much employees deserving of a fair wage, as anyone else who produces something that society wants or needs.

The challenge, though, lies in the process of negotiation, education, consensus building and legislation needed to make it happen.  This will always be a local process, dealing with local ecosystems and local stakeholders, and finding local, fair and sustainable solutions.

But a global agreement could validate all this, and encourage knowledge-sharing about what’s possible, what water’s worth, where it comes from, what kind of contracts might be needed, and other essential but often-overlooked practical details.  A fresh water treaty like that would be useful, one that spells out how human needs are to be met in practice, and linked to the conservation of real ecosystems.

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