Canada’s Stand on Water as a Human Right

Freshwater supplies are not equally distributed around the world, and some countries have access to more resources than others. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared access to water as a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, an estimated 1.1 Billion people around the world do not have access to adequate, safe freshwater.

Inequality in water distribution and quality around the world creates myriad economic and social problems. Polluted water is responsible for many deaths by waterborne illnesses. The WHO estimates that one child dies every 15 seconds from diarrhea, which is caused largely by poor sanitation and unsafe water supplies.

The right to safe water and sanitation is included in a number of international treaties and conventions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteed all people to a standard of living adequate to their well-being. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also adopted the right to health, and specifically recognized water as an independent right.

While the right to water sounds intuitive and supported by all people, it has political and legal implications. In 2008, Germany and Spain lead a motion in the United Nations to declare water and sanitation as a human right. Canada was the only country to vote against that motion, stating that there are no human rights obligations related to access to safe water under international conventions.

The explanation of the Canadian government is that if water were to be declared as a human right, it might jeopardize the delicate negotiations on water rights between Canada and the United States. Furthermore, it may promote private enterprises in the United States to make claims on Canada’s water supplies and open the door to bulk water exports because of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

According to the Centre on Human Rights and Evictions, the international definition of water as a human right protects the sovereignty of nations and does not give private investors the right to claim Canadian water resources on the basis of human rights. The right for water limits access to water to basic personal and hygiene use which typically account for only 5% of overall water consumption.

Recognizing water as a human right will not jeopardize Canada’s water resources and will not give other countries the right to lay claims on Canadian territorial waters. On the contrary, recognizing water as a human right will empower poor communities to hold their governments to account and promote reforms of sanitation and water policies. Hopefully, that will provide people access to safe drinking water.

Canada can support developing nations by sharing technological innovations and assisting developing countries in building safe water infrastructure. After all, proper management and conservation of water resources will help countries utilize their own water resources without the need for bulk water imports or conflicts over water rights.