As I write this, I am drinking water – clean, clear, cold, refreshing water – straight from a tap that draws from an artesian well. I did not boil it, or pass it through a filter, or sterilize it in any way, and I am not concerned that it may make me sick. Many are not so lucky. Which is why in 2010 the United Nations voted overwhelmingly in favour of acknowledging water as a universal human right. To the surprise and dismay of many Canadians, our country abstained from the vote. Two years later, the Harper Conservatives indicated they supported the human right to water but, to date, their actions have lagged behind their words. In fact, in many cases their actions have directly contradicted that position.
Why would Canada, with its wealth and copious fresh water, shy away from recognizing water’s place amongst the other universal humans rights? After all, how can a person enjoy life, liberty and security of person without access to potable water?
Understanding Canada’s reluctance to admit, and act as if, water is a human right
The founders of Free the Children, Craig and Marc Kielburger, astutely speculate that Canada’s dismal record in providing access to clean water in First Nations communities may have something to do with it. They raise a valid point: now that Canada has recognized water as a human right, how will it reconcile that stance with the uncanny number – approximately 1,220 at present – water advisories in the country, many in the communities that house the most vulnerable members of our population.
Another reason Canada may have been reluctant to recognize its responsibility to make access to water a priority is that doing so puts obstacles in front of some big political plans. Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, asserts that recognizing water as a human right entails obligations for the government to respect, by steering clear of legislation that compromises people’s access to clean water; to protect this access from interference; and to fulfill its duties by taking steps to approach the goal of giving all residents access to water and sanitation.
Signing on to a trade deal like CETA, which may be ratified any day now, may indeed come into conflict with all three obligations. The proposed free-trade deal with the European Union does not make exemptions for water, a fact that has many worrying about the possibility that drinking water could be privatized down the road, leading to more expensive water and even more limited access for the most vulnerable.
Closer to home
Political motivations closer to home also have implications concerning who has access to water and for what use. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is incredibly water-intensive and has the potential to use up great amounts of a community’s fresh water. Although Newfoundland does not yet have any fracking operations, companies are applying for permits to frack for shale gas on the west coast of the island, including near Gros Morne National Park.
With 173 water advisories in Newfoundland and Labrador at the time of writing, many of which have been active for years, it is time to make policy decisions that increase residents’ access to clean water. Acceptable drinking water should be a priority. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much wealth is coming into the province if it doesn’t improve the quality of life.