Putting Water in Rio

GENEVA – While the outcome of the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”) is uncertain, one thing is not: each of the more than 50,000 participants will take a drink of water. Unfortunately, a few drops spilled on participants’ programs could be water’s most meaningful appearance on the summit’s agenda.

Developed-country politicians are merely representing their citizens’ priorities: we, in the developed world, take water for granted. After all, it is cheap and abundant; we never lack enough of it to clean our clothes, manufacture our goods, water our plants, cook our food, or flush our toilets.

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But that is not true for the majority of the world’s population. In the developing world, 800 million people have no access to safe drinking water, while 2.5 billion people lack basic sanitation. In Sub-Saharan Africa, daily water consumption averages 10-20 liters, compared to 200-250 liters in Europe and 300 liters in North America and Japan.

Moreover, gastrointestinal diseases contracted from dirty water kill 2.2 million people annually. And countless children – mainly girls in Africa – are unable to get an education because they must fetch water from distant, often unsanitary, sources to meet their family’s needs.

In 2010, the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution explicitly recognizing the human right to water and sanitation, and acknowledging that they are essential to fulfilling other human-rights obligations. The resolution calls upon developed countries and international organizations to offer financial support, capacity-building assistance, and technology transfer to countries in need – especially in the developing world – thereby helping them to provide for their populations clean and affordable drinking water and basic sanitation.

Now, officials must promote further progress by reaffirming their support for the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Indeed, ignoring this critical issue at Rio+20 would not bode well for the accomplishment of the conference’s environmental and development goals. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay reminded delegations, green growth will bring no progress without environmental protection and the realization of fundamental human rights around the world.

Most of the international community is ready to work toward a more sustainable future. But, under the influence of a few countries, the conference’s final declaration could end up being little more than vague statements and lofty language.

To avoid this outcome, the water crisis must not be considered in isolation from other global sustainability challenges. Rather, delegates in Rio must recognize that water is a critical driver in achieving sustainable development – thereby acknowledging the intrinsic link between aquatic ecosystems, food, health, and environmental security – and push for the Right to Water to be enshrined in the summit’s final declaration.

Moreover, countries that have committed to ratifying the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention – which establishes basic standards for the use and conservation of waters that cross international boundaries – must compel their uncommitted counterparts to follow their lead. According to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev – who founded Green Cross International after Rio’s Earth Summit in 1992 – water, if not safeguarded and shared, is more likely than other resources, such as oil, to catalyze future conflict.

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Twenty years ago, the first Earth Summit was a major milestone in the struggle for human development and dignity. Rio+20 should be as ambitious. Indeed, the upcoming conference must enshrine this progress by recognizing that clean water and basic sanitation are fundamental human rights. Otherwise, delegates’ crystal water glasses might not be so full next time.

Read more from our "The Road to Rio+20" Focal Point.