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Water as a Human Right: water access is divided both locally and globally

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

As a Blue Community, the Sisters of St. Joseph are raising their awareness about who has clean water and who does not. Social and political inequities are magnified by water. Even though water is foundational to life, it remains exclusive based on wealth and white privilege. Let’s look at this issue for Canada, the Great Lakes, and globally to understand why this the human right to water matters and how we can collectively ensure that everyone has water for drinking and sanitation.

Canada is blessed with over 20% of the world’s freshwater. Accessible freshwater (not frozen in glaciers) makes up less than 1% of all water on mother earth. Zooming into a map of Canada reveals a vast network of water arteries feeding all life in its path. Canada is also one of the richest countries in the world. Ranked #38 for population (almost 37 million people) we rank #8 for top wealth (with 6.4 trillion in wealth). Yet too many people here go without clean water.

The image above is a crisis map. In Ontario alone, there are 80 First Nations living with a Drinking Water Advisory (DWA). These DWAs are a combination of Boil Water advisories, Do Not Consume advisories, and Do Not Use advisories (read about the differences). Based on Canada’s wealth, it’s hard to believe that some people in Canada can not do what most take for granted – turning on the taps with trust. This is not a recent crisis. Some First Nations have not had access to clean water for decades.

Canada does not have consistent and enforceable drinking water standards. Those not living on a First Nation reserve have Provincial water rules and layers of government infrastructure support. First Nations fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and this Federal support is chronically neglected. On March 22, 2016 (auspiciously World Water Day) new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $4.6 billion for new infrastructure in Indigenous communities over the next five years. This includes money for water and wastewater systems. This Human Rights Watch article explains the issues and comments more. The Trudeau government has promised to end all DWAs, but the progress has been flat and The Parliamentary Budget Officer has estimated that this spending meets only 70% of the total amount required.

The David Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians put out a report called Glass Half Full to evaluate the Trudeau promise. Not only is this Federal promise far from being on track, there are increased fears of the funding gap being closed by water privatization. One way to monitor the updates is by visiting the Water Today maps. Here is a sample of current DWAs for southern Ontario.

Ecojustice has also researched this human rights crisis and makes the following observation:

Being unable to use the water in your home isn’t simply an inconvenience, it is something that poses a serious threat to one’s health and quality of life. Studies have shown that communities that lack access to safe, clean drinking water face significant health risks, including elevated rates of waterborne illnesses, pneumonia, influenza, whooping cough, and other infections. The long history of the drinking water crisis in Indigenous communities is an egregious injustice, and the fact that it has gone unaddressed for so long is unacceptable.

It serves to perpetuate and contribute to existing disadvantages faced by Indigenous peoples in this country due to the ongoing effects of colonialism and systemic racism.

The Council of Canadians is leading a Water Drop letter-writing campaign. Print off this letter template in the shape of a water drop and tell PM Trudeau to keep his promise. Our Federation’s Congregations also call the Great Lakes watershed home. We live, pray, and serve within lakes Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. But some of our water neighbours in the United States are denied water because of price, pollution, and systemic discrimination.

From 2014 to 2017, over 100,000 homes have been denied water. Daily acts of refreshment, sanitation, and feeding are denied because of unaffordable water bills.

From the Vice News video below:

Earlier this year, Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department began turning off water utilities for overdue or delinquent accounts. Since April, the department has cut off the water for nearly 3,000 households per week — meaning roughly 100,000 Motor City residents are without water. Entrenched at the bottom of Detroit's current economic crisis, many of those without water are the city's poorest resident. The city’s shut-off campaign has garnered international press attention, and has been called “an affront to human rights” by representatives of the United Nations. VICE News traveled to Detroit to see first-hand how residents are dealing with the water shut-offs, speak with local government representatives about the issue, and discuss possible resolutions with activist groups.

In Detroit, a Great Lakes city bordering 20% of the earth’s 1% freshwater, hundreds of thousands of people are having their water and rights taken away because the City is drowning in a confluence of municipal, racial, and wealth issues. Once servicing 2 million people, the flight of manufacturing jobs has depopulated the city down to 700,000 people. Not only are these remaining people the ones less willing and able to leave, they now have to pay for that major waterworks system with their minor funds. People have to choose between buying food and buying water.

Combined with systemic racism and water privatization, downtown residents pay some of the highest water utility bills in the USA even though they are some of the poorest people in the country. People are fighting back. Detroit’s People’s Water Board Coalition is just one of many groups coordinating water access, policy change, political accountability, and community action.

Hear more voices affected by these shut-offs. Before the crisis, one woman was paying $60 for three months. Now she needs to pay $100 for one month.

But it’s not just Detroit in crisis. Over 5,000 children in Flint Michigan have been poisoned with lead in their water. This 2011 -- 2017 CNN timeline describes the series of system failures that switched Flint’s drinking water source, ignored public alerts, sacrificed human health, and still demands people to pay for their poisoned water. This on-going struggle for clean water also impacts people’s heath and trust in public institutions -- impacts that will last decades.

This CBC report shows the personal and political affects.

A recent Michigan Civil Rights Commission report concluded that “decisions would have been different had they concerned the state’s wealthier, predominantly white communities.” This same Toronto Star article reported that:

“Flint resident Claire McClinton said she’s grateful for the efforts but finds the report “underwhelming.” She said the emergency manager law needs to be abolished, the Army Corps of Engineers should replace the old pipes, and Medicare needs to be made available to “all impacted residents.”

At a water justice gathering in the Fall of 2017, McClinton said, “In Flint Michigan, you can buy a gallon of lead free gas, or a gallon of lead free paint, but you can’t get a gallon of lead free water from your own tap.

The human right to clean water is also a global issue. In 2010, the United Nations agreed that clean water and sanitation is a human right. The infographic below helps tell the story with 2.6 billion people denied basic sanitation and 884 million people without clean drinking water.

This Circle of Blue map shows where the human right to water is most critical.

In 2010 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution that affirms the human right to clean water and basic sanitation. After originally abstaining from this vote, Canada agreed to this resolution in 2012. According to the Safe Drinking Water Foundation:

The government is obliged to ensure that people can enjoy their basic human rights. There are three levels of obligation. First, the government must respect the right, and not do anything to interfere with the right. In the case of drinking water, this means that the government cannot deny anyone access to safe drinking water.

The second level of the government’s duty is to protect the right, by preventing third party interference. For drinking water, this may involve the establishment of legislation that prohibits manufacturing companies from polluting drinking water.

The third level of obligation is to fulfill the right, when necessary. In the case of drinking water, this may require the government to establish a water treatment plant or construct wells to provide safe drinking water.

Did you know the Sisters of St. Joseph are supporting this Water First project that is training Indigenous students to fill the employment gap in water treatment plants. Read and listen to CBC coverage about this project.

What does this issue obligate you to do? How can we amplify this human rights message to a wider audience?

By Paul Baines
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1 Comment

Unknown member
Jul 18, 2018

Thank you for this excellent info and resources-we are one and the waters of our earth are one body-if there is a problem with water anywhere there is a problem with water everywhere

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