America's Role in Protecting the Right to Water Commentary
America's Role in Protecting the Right to Water
Edited by: Jeremiah Lee

JURIST Special Guest Columnist Amanda Klasing of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights says that access to water and sanitation is a fundamental human right of all people, and that right must be promoted by the United States within its own borders and in its policies abroad…

Nothing is more essential to life than water. We cannot survive long without water. We need water for food production, for hygiene, for industry, for recreation. Yet, as Americans, rarely do we give the slightest pause to this vital resource, because we have access to sufficient clean water to surpass all of our needs.

But for almost a billion people worldwide, water is constantly on their mind. For almost 15% of the world’s population, water does not give life but acts as a silent killer. Without access to safe and sufficient water, the equivalent of four jumbo jets full of children die everyday of water-related illnesses. Yet, hardly a word is written about these deaths. With 2.5 billion people in the world without access to proper sanitation, there seems no end to the parents having to bury children due to preventable waterborne disease.

Latest projections released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicate that the number of people living without sufficient access to clean water will quadruple by 2030. In the face of this mounting crisis, increasing global access to water and sanitation is an issue of great concern for maintaining peace and security around the world. Last month, Senators Richard J. Durbin, Bob Corker and Patty Murray, and Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Donald Payne introduced bills to place water at the forefront of United States development priorities, with the express goal to increase the number of people throughout the world with sustainable access to clean water and sanitation by 100 million people by 2015.

Simultaneous to the introduction of the bill, the 5th World Water Forum was held in Istanbul, Turkey as a multi-stakeholder discussion focused on bridging divides in reaching policies to address the water crisis. At the conclusion of the Forum on March 22, UN World Water Day, ministers and officials from over 100 countries released a statement recognizing that access to water and sanitation is a “basic human need.”

The use of the word need rather than right in the statement has drawn criticism as a rejection of the human right to water in favor of the less influential recognition of water as a basic need, and the United States has been identified as the source of this language. However, this Ministerial Statement should not be characterized as a death knell for the right to water, nor should the United States be seen as the executioner. Instead, last week marks an important and positive shift in the role of the United States in these discussions. The United States is present, attentive and involved in discussions related to water in a way that it has not been before.

The United States has historically been a leader on human rights in the world and it has the opportunity to be a leader once more on an issue that will be the greatest human rights concern of this and future generations. The right to access clean water and sanitation must be promoted by the United States within its own borders and in its policies abroad. It is not only sound economic policy, as investing in access to water and sanitation yields almost 8 times the economic benefit as initial capital investment, nor is it only sound national security policy, but it is also a policy consistent with the promotion of the rights upon which the country is founded. Access to water and sanitation is a fundamental human right of all people that should never be questioned and to which the United States must do its part to help realize.

Amanda M. Klasing is the 2008-2009 RFK Social Justice Fellow at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights and has worked extensively on issues related to the right to water and donor accountability, specifically in regards to Haiti. Amanda and Leah Lotto, a colleague from NYU School of Law’s Center for Human Rights & Global Justice, attended the 5th World Water Forum held March 15-22nd in Istanbul, Turkey and advocated for a rights-based approach to water and sanitation.

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