Clean drinking water is a basic human right

Is our government signalling a green light for the further privatisation of water services?

New Zealand's decision to abstain from supporting a UN resolution declaring access to clean drinking water as a basic human right is deeply disappointing. Equally unfortunate is the scant coverage that this important issue received in our mainstream media.

The UN declaration, which was passed by 122 member states on 28 July this year, “declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life”. Member countries were urged to “scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable water and sanitation for all,” according to the resolution.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s excuse for New Zealand’s abstention at the UN - that it hadn't time to assess the implications – should be taken with a grain of salt. Globally, over 880 million people still lack access to clean drinking water, more than 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation, and each year 1.5 million children under five years old die as a result of water- and sanitation-related disease. Supporting the declaration would have provided a clear signal to the international community that New Zealand is seriously committed to playing its part to ameliorate these shocking statistics.

It is no secret that around the world, powerful commercial interests are continuing to drive the privatisation of water services. In the scramble to make profits from the sale and supply of water, these corporations have been backed by the World Bank and the IMF, which have often made the release of finance to developing countries struggling with debt repayment conditional on the deregulation of water services. Of course, this is generally couched on the grounds of improving efficiency. Yet the experience of many developing countries has been precisely the opposite – the privatisation of water services has led to rising prices and deteriorating water quality. Consequently, the most vulnerable and marginalised in society are deprived of access to clean drinking water, a basic necessity of life, and the result has been the exacerbation of health and social inequalities.

There can be little doubt that New Zealand’s reticence to endorse a declaration proposing clean, accessible and affordable water for all is a reflection of the government’s concern about the impact that such a position would have on the growing number of free trade agreements (FTAs) we have signed or are in the process of negotiating. The inclusion of services such as water provision is a common source of contention in many FTAs between developed and developing nations, with developed nations (including New Zealand) frequently insisting on the inclusion of services in such agreements.

Yet there is something inherently repugnant about rich countries extracting concessions to enable their own companies to profit from the sale and supply of water to some of the poorest people on the planet. Clean drinking water should not be treated as a commodity to be traded and sold. As Vandana Shiva writes in Water Wars, “The water crisis is the most pervasive, most severe, and most invisible dimension of the ecological devastation of the earth.”

Furthermore, competition over water resources has been identified as a major source of future geopolitical conflicts. By not supporting the importance of equitable, safe and clean drinking water as an integral component of the realisation of human rights, our government is shying away from addressing these stark realities, and in the process, is undermining New Zealand’s self-professed image as a ‘good international citizen’.

And there is another more shameful facet to this debate that strikes even closer to home. The polluted status of many of our rivers and waterways is well known (though not something that is advertised in our tourist brochures). Much less talked about is the fact that drinking water quality in many rural areas across Godzone fails to meet minimum safety standards, with high levels of faecal contamination and heavy metals. For a country blessed with abundant rainfall and such a low population, this is more than disappointing – it is a national disgrace.