© Maude Barlow

‘We must take the global water crisis as seriously as the current pandemic’

Washing your hands thoroughly with soap is one of the most effective ways of combating the coronavirus. But what if you don't have access to clean water, a reality for over two billion people worldwide? Follow the Money speaks to Maude Barlow, a Canadian human rights activist who helped ensure that water was recognised as a fundamental right by the UN.

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'The coronavirus has made the fight for the human right to water and sanitation more urgent than ever,'  says Maude Barlow. ‘If everyone had access to clean water and sanitation, untold millions would have a fighting chance of staving off this and many other diseases.’ 

Barlow, 72, has been fighting for the fair distribution of clean water for some 35 years. She achieved her most important victory in 2010, when the United Nations recognised water and sanitation as a human right. I spoke to her about how that fight started, and why she thinks it is so important to continue.

Water as a tradable good

In 1985, Barlow was wading through a thick stack of paper. These were the glory years of economic liberalism in the west. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of the UK; Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and conservative PM Brian Mulroney was at the helm in Canada.

The stack of paper was a consequence of that liberalism: a draft version of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement — the first modern treaty of its kind between the two countries, and a forerunner of the North American free trade agreement, NAFTA.

As she read, Barlow's amazement grew. ‘Where many people read the body of the Canada-US FTA, few read the annexes,’ she says. In here, she came across something that really scared her: a reference to water “in all its forms, including ice and snow”, listed as a tradable good.

Why would water be listed as a tradable good? Surely, that resource belongs to all of us?.

As it turned out, there already existed several plans to export Canadian water to California. Once these plans would get underway, the agreement would allow the US to claim partial ownership of Canada’s water supply.

‘Once the tap was turned on, it would be very hard to turn off’

‘By adding water as a tradable good and subjecting it to the rules of the trade agreement, we were giving the US the right to claim partial ownership of Canada's water if exports were to commence,’ says Barlow. ‘Once the tap was turned on, it would be very hard to turn off.’

She and her fellow activists went to the media and the public. The inclusion of Canada’s water became a major issue in the fight over the trade agreement and in the election of 1988, but that wasn’t enough to prevent the Conservative party from gaining a majority and moving forward with the trade agreement.

But, says Barlow: ‘The good news is that we managed to stop all the proposed water export schemes. And resource proportionally has been dropped in the new North American trade agreement that is replacing the old NAFTA. That was directly due to the good work of civil society.'

On July 28, 2010, Barlow achieved the greatest success of her career: the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 64/292, including access to water and sanitation in its list of human rights. ‘This was the happiest moment of my life’, says Barlow. ‘One hundred and twenty-two countries supported the proposal; forty-one, including the Netherlands, abstained. No country voted against.’

No water to fight coronavirus

But what exactly does it mean that water has become a human right? Has it really changed anything, for example in the current fight against the coronavirus? Barlow’s response is emphatic: ‘That was very important, that we as nations of the world said water is a human right. It’s your fundamental right not to have to watch your child die of illness because you no longer have water. Several countries have also amended their constitutions or introduced new laws as a result of this decision.’

Millions of people in the United States live without clean water because they can’t pay their bills

In her 2019 book Whose water is it anyway?, Barlow offers a number of examples of this. For instance, she writes: ‘In early 2012, Mexico amended its constitution to recognize the right to water and sanitation. Three years later, the government was forced to back down after introducing a water bill that would have privatized Mexico’s water. A strong grassroots opposition successfully argued that privatization would violate the constitutional amendment the government had so recently adopted.’

‘Recognising the right to clean water and hygiene is no dead letter,' says Valeska Hovener, press officer for Unicef in the Netherlands. ‘By establishing it as a right, it becomes something enforceable. Whereas previously clean water could be seen as a service to which private or private donors could contribute, with this right it has become something to which governments must contribute.'

Unicef calls the right to drinking water ‘a strong lever’ to remind governments of their obligations. After all, it is also included in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Hovener: ‘First of all, countries are forced to bring their national policies (laws, policy, budgets) in line with the rights of the convention, such as the right to clean drinking water. In addition, there’s an important mechanism: the assessment by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.’

Every five years, countries are evaluated for compliance with the convention, and are required to publish a report on their achievements. ‘This ensures that you can closely monitor the progress of access to water,’ says Hovener, ‘because it identifies which groups do and don’t have access.’

Barlow also sees the UN resolution as an important weapon in the fight for clean water during the corona crisis: ‘I am so glad that we fought this battle at the UN ten years ago, and can point out to governments that they have an obligation to provide these basic services as part of their fight against the pandemic.’

But conditions in many countries remain difficult. According to an estimate by the World Health Organization and Unicef, around three billion people worldwide do not have access to basic handwashing facilities. And it's not just developing countries: last month, NBC News reported that millions of people in the United States live without clean water because they can’t pay their bills. Now that the pandemic has also erupted in the US, this is causing major problems: something as basic as washing hands becomes impossible without running water.

‘Not only are untold millions not able to wash, they’re also unable to keep their surroundings sterilised and clean’

‘It's not clear how many Americans are living without water service in their homes,’ the NBC report notes. ‘But a survey conducted in 2016 by Food & Water Watch found that in the nation's largest cities, 5 percent of households on average had their water shut off that year. If those numbers apply across the country, that would translate to 15 million people.’

Some of these households are now hurriedly being reconnected, but the process is too slow to stay ahead of the crisis. Barlow: ‘Basically, when we start with a situation of entrenched water inequality — as we have everywhere in the world — and a pandemic like this happens, those with water access have an advantage in terms of being able to stave off the virus. I am very worried about the lack of water when the first basic tool for prevention — clean water — is not there. Not only are untold millions not able to wash, they’re also unable to keep their surroundings sterilised and clean, to clean surfaces, dishes, etcetera.’

Washing hands without clean water

Barlow says that even though the situation may be worse in the US than in Europe, that doesn’t mean European countries are unaffected: ‘Given their migrant populations and refugee camps, this situation now exists there as well.’

Unicef is working hard to improve the situation in these camps. ‘We’re very worried about refugee children,’ says Hovener. ‘They run a greater risk of becoming infected, because they live in overcrowded camps and often have little or no access to basic facilities such as clean water and medical care. In addition, they have to deal with closed borders and other obstacles on their way to a safer life.'

The organisation is distributing water and hygiene kits in a number of countries, and teaching children how to wash their hands safely. In refugee camps in Jordan, where water is in particularly short supply, it has delivered 620,000 bars and 4,000 bottles of hand soap, as well as 3,000 hygiene kits. Unicef has also provided information on protective measures to some 27,000 out of 124,000 camp residents. 

How exactly does the organization keep track of that number? ‘That depends on how information is given,’ Hovener says. ‘If you give a training course at schools, for example, it’s literally a matter of counting the number of people on the attendance list. In this case, we also used social media a lot, and then you can calculate how many people you reach.’ 

'We’ve been moving, damming, depleting, polluting, and mismanaging our lakes, rivers and groundwater supplies to death for years now‘

Despite this, hundreds of millions of people remain forced to live without permanent access to clean water. Sometimes, they have to resort to creative solutions: ‘Chlorinated water or hand sanitiser containing at least 60 percent alcohol are the second-best option if someone doesn’t have soap and running water,’ says Hovener. ‘Where these are not available, recycled soapy water or ash can help, although not as effectively. If these methods are used, it’s important to wash your hands as soon as possible when you do have access to running water, and to avoid contact with people and surfaces in the meantime.’

Fighting the symptoms

This help is useful, but it is not treating the root cause of the problem, which is why Unicef is working with governments and partner organisations to improve access to water. However, the causes of water shortages are part of a much more fundamental issue, Barlow says: ‘We’re a planet running out of accessible clean water. More and more people will eventually run out and be more vulnerable to diseases such as the coronavirus.’

The reasons for this are twofold, Barlow says. On the one hand, it is the result of poor water management: 'We’ve been moving, damming, depleting, polluting, and mismanaging our lakes, rivers and groundwater supplies to death for years now. So even with the best intention of water justice, we are running up against this reality.’ And on the other hand, we don't think enough about who we supply our water to, and at what price. ‘The human water crisis is due, of course, to entrenched inequality within and between nations, and the allocation of scarce water to corporations, mining and energy operations, large industrial agriculture, and free trade zones, over people who desperately need water.’

In other words, we must learn lessons from this crisis, and act on them now, rather than later. ‘To fight this virus and any future ones. We need to take the global water crisis as seriously as we do the current pandemic. It must take the form of an international and national campaign to end water injustice forever.’

Barlow says rich countries like the Netherlands can lead the way here: they should start promoting the human right to water and sanitation. 'The Netherlands should put the water crisis at the top of its political agenda, along with the climate.’ The coronacrisis is giving us a dreadful wake-up call on the human right to water. Let’s try to learn the lesson.’