Water: Key to our Existence

Posted on April 29, 2010 in Environment

Kush Kalra:

“Everything originated in water and everything is sustained by water.” –Goethe

Today, in the twenty-first century the greatest threat to our water resources undoubtedly comes from pollution. While this is a problem worldwide, it is particularly severe in developing countries due to presence of large population, lack of finances and inadequate scientific expertise. Undoubtedly, in a country like India, where achieving industrial growth is the call of the day, the problem of water pollution has to be addressed urgently in order to avoid large scale public calamities.

Comprising over 70% of the Earth’s surface, water is undoubtedly the most precious natural resource that exists on our planet. Without the seemingly invaluable compound comprised of hydrogen and oxygen, life on Earth would be non-existent: it is essential for everything on our planet to grow and prosper. Although we as humans recognize this fact, we disregard it by polluting our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Subsequently, we are slowly but surely harming our planet to the point where organisms are dying at a very alarming rate. In addition to innocent organisms dying off, our drinking water has become greatly affected as is our ability to use water for recreational purposes. Pollution is the biggest threat to our existing water resources (both fresh water and seawater) as well as to mankind. For example, globally, estimates suggest that nearly 1.5 billion people lack safe drinking water and that at least 5 million deaths per year can be attributed to waterborne diseases. In India a staggering 70% of the available water is polluted. It is estimated that 73 million work days are lost every year due to water related diseases, such as typhoid, infective hepatitis (jaundice), cholera, diarrhea and dysentery. Many of them become epidemic proportions. The cost of treating them and loss in production amounts to Rs. 600 crore a year. It is in this context that there is an urgent need to look at the matter and propose some solutions so as to make the current legal regime more productive and effective.

Controlling of water pollution is an extremely difficult task. Added to this are also other economic and administrative problems. These problems can be framed here. First, India is a federal country where all rivers are inter-state and water is a state subject. An upper riparian state may frustrate the attempts of a lower riparian state to control the water pollution of its river by using its river water for various purposes which may have the effect of changing the quality and quantity of water flowing to the lower riparian state. Secondly, it is not always easy to measure water pollution and more so in the case of India where the technology and expertise are not sufficient. At present, scientists use physical methods for measuring water pollution, such as inserting meters which measure the electrical conductivity of the water. The most common test is to measure for Bio-chemical Oxygen Demand level of the water. Thirdly, there is a problem of attaining purity between standards of industry and sewage effluent which goes into the stream and the standard of purity of water of the stream.

Recent research has shown that lack of proper water resources or inadequate technical/facilities are not solely responsible for the dismal state of affairs pervading water sector, but it is mainly due to exclusion and neglect to the people in the management of water affairs. In other words, it is more of an issue of water governance. This requires the urgency to make right to water as a fundamental right.

Undoubtedly, proper implementation of the right to water and sanitation in national and international governance frameworks can be helpful in generating the political will essential for making the necessary reforms to laws, policies and practices. This will also help in mobilizing necessary resources, both at domestic and international levels, for basic water and sanitation. It can also help in ensuring that all relevant resources are harnessed properly in a manner that exerts specific emphasis on the needs and aspirations of the poor and marginalized people.

At this critical juncture, there is a dire need to make right to water as a fundamental right to because such a move would envisage improved accountability. In other words, the right to water means that access to water is viewed as a legal entitlement, rather than only a moral priority. National mechanisms, such as human rights commissions and courts, and international human rights mechanisms can identify and address deficiencies in the implementation of water policies, and recommend or require improvements.

The issue of right to water can help various communities and other organizations to raise the political profile of the importance of access to water and sanitation and can lobby the responsible agencies for improvements.

The right to water focuses attention on groups that have been traditionally discriminated against or historically neglected, such as persons living in informal settlements. It obliges governments to use available resources in a manner that prioritizes the extension of access to basic water and sanitation services to all their people. This is in contrast to common practice where significant amounts of public resources are often used for the construction of infrastructure and provision of subsidies that benefit upper and middle-income groups to the exclusion of the poor.

Besides, the right to water facilitates increased participation of the people in decision-making. It provides for genuine consultation and participation of communities in decision-making on service delivery and management of water resources. The right to water and sanitation can help empower and enable communities to organize themselves and legitimately seek to take part in decision-making processes.

Various international treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women include commitments related to access to water. Several United Nations organs have recognized the right to water and sanitation. The UN General Assembly stated that the right to clean water is a fundamental human right. The Human Rights Commission adopted several resolutions on toxic wastes, which referred to the ‘right to water.’

The right to water as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living was referred in the Programme of Action of the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development. Other bodies besides the United Nations have made similar declarations. The 116 member States of the Non-Aligned Movement recalled General Comment 15 and acknowledged the right to water in 2006. The 43 Governments represented in the Council of Europe stated in 2001 that international human rights instruments include the right to a minimum quantity of water of satisfactory quality form the point of view of health and hygiene. As a result, every UN member State has at least once recognized the right to water.

Acknowledgment of the right to water is a useful resource for governments and civil society. However, mere recognition of right to water in international treaties is not enough and United Nations’ treaties and declarations in this regard are insufficient to bring about real change. Therefore, it is essential to support words with actions, and to mobilize the expertise and independence of United Nations human rights bodies in support of implementation.

Until recently, access to water as a right was almost a neglected filed in India. However, the positive impact of the international declarations, active role by the civil society groups and judicial interventions by the Supreme Court and several High Courts created a favourable atmosphere for considering access to drinking water a right in India. As per Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution of India, Article 21 entitled ‘protection of life and personal liberty’ states: ‘no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law’. This has popularly come to be known as Article on ‘right to life’.

In the wake of new problems of citizen’s rights and welfare and the role of the State coming up before the judiciary over the years, the scope of the right to life has considerably widened. As is rightly observed, the Supreme Court breathed life into the words of Article 21 (personal life and liberty) as “life with human dignity, with all faculties intact”. The scope of this concept has got widened in course of time to incorporate various other significant aspects of human life like ‘pollution free water and air to full enjoyment of life’, health, environment, housing etc. Public interest litigation played a significant role in this process.

It is saddening that the inadequate or denial of access to drinking water to the majority of the people in India has been going on for a long time. And this has been happening despite the Supreme Court’s various rulings from time to time that access to clean drinking water is a fundamental right as part of right to life in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, both at the Central and State levels.

The governments seems to have succumbed to the pressure tactics of the vested interests who are eager to make profits by commodifying water, thereby denying access to drinking water to the poor and marginalized segments of the society. While pursuing liberalization policies in different sectors of economy, the water sector should be properly looked after us an area of public service where profit should not be the sole criterion.

While allowing public-private partnership in water sector, the emphasis should be on safeguarding the interest of the vast majority of the masses by ensuring adequate supply of drinking water to them and the private sector can be compensated in other areas for their investment and loss in this sector. All this requires legal framework which can come into existence only when Right to Water is included into the existing Fundamental Rights by amending Constitution.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz