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The struggle for clean water

Voting on a proposal put forward by Bolivian ambassador Pablo Solon, the United Nations General Assembly voted yesterday to declare that “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights.”

Photo: Survival International

So it was fitting that on the same day in London, police were out in force to prevent protesters gate crashing the AGM of the British-based mining transnational Vedanta. The corporation is accused of fatally polluting the local water supply around its aluminium refinery in Lanjigarch, Orissa state in India.

A petition signed by 30,000 people was handed in to the meeting calling on shareholders to stop Vedanta’s local subsidiary, the Orissa Mining Corporation, opening a bauxite mine to feed the refinery, in the nearby Niyamgiri hills.

The development threatens the very survival of the Dongria Kondh indigenous community who live there. A report from Amnesty quotes a member of the community saying: “The hill is our god and the earth our goddess. Between the two we have the rains and the water. Those wanting to mine here will slowly take over this. Where will we go then?”

An estimated 884 million people don’t have safe drinking water and about 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year from diarrhoea and other water-related causes. Dirty water kills more children than AIDS, malaria and measles together. Three and a half million people die each year as a result of contaminated water.

One of the United Nations-sponsored Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2001, was to halve the number of people who cannot reach or afford safe drinking water and halve the number who do not have basic sanitation. But in reality, the opposite is happening.

As the effect of global warming increases, water is becoming more than ever a scarce and expensive commodity. Some 10 million people in West Africa are facing starvation right now as a result of a long and worsening drought.

New figures show that global temperatures are soaring to their highest-ever level this year. The Met Office Hadley Centre, drawing on the work of more than 100 scientists from more than 20 institutions, has compiled ten indicators of temperature. “They provide, in a one place, a snapshot of our world and spell out a single conclusion that the climate is unequivocally warming,” the Met Office reports.

Clean water must be a right, but like all others it will need to be fought for in the teeth of opposition from the corporations and the rich. Rights can’t be left as words on paper, as all the Development Goals for Africa have been.

It is absolutely right to use any legal recourse to defend rights, including working through the United Nations. Ultimately, however, power rests in the hands of corporations and even governments have to kowtow to them. This week, for example, the government of Uruguay has been forced by Phillip Morris to revisit their strict no-smoking laws because the death-dealing corporation has made a complaint to the World Trade Organisation.

In our Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions, we tried to put the concept of rights into a revolutionary context. We propose that human rights must expand beyond the concept of the individual to societal rights – the right to decent housing, health care and so on. This connects with the idea of “Mother Earth Rights”, proposed in the World People’s Declaration on Climate Change: for what is nature but the body of human beings, whose health is our health.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
29 July 2010

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