By Peter Asmus, The Sacramento Bee, July 5, 2009
In the slums of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, about 1 million poor people pay up to 30 times more for water of dubious quality brought to them in old tanker trucks than middle-class citizens pay for clean and safe water provided by the local public water utility via standard household connections.
Some may be shocked by these disturbing disparities in the developing world, but a lack of access to safe, affordable and clean water is also an issue in California, particularly in the Central Valley and along the Central Coast. In these communities, more than 90 percent of drinking water is sucked from contaminated groundwater sources. All told, more than 150,000 California residents lack safe water for drinking, bathing and washing dishes; even more have water service disconnected because they cannot afford to pay their bill.
While the arid West – including California – has always suffered from more severe water challenges than the rest of the country, experts claim 36 states will experience local or regional water shortages over the next five years. Spain is also facing an extreme water crisis, with some wondering whether the Sahara Desert will cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa. And droughts seem to have become a permanent way of life in Australia.
Society appears to face a global crisis in water supply as one in six people – more than 1 billion humans – do not have adequate potable water to meet their most basic survival needs. These facts have spurred efforts to enshrine the human right to water at the United Nations and in the national constitutions of countries such as South Africa and Ecuador.
Interestingly enough, the prime opponent of guaranteeing a human right to water on the international stage at the United Nations has been the United States, which, by the way, is also opposed to a human right to housing and food. It is this political dynamic of our federal government opposing human rights to water that makes Assembly Bill 1242 by Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Los Altos, so interesting. The bill is moving through the California Legislature and a key vote is scheduled Monday.
International debate rages
"The language included in AB 1242 is typical of that used by organizations and campaigns around the world declaring a legal human right to water," said Jeff Conant, international research and communications coordinator for Food and Water Watch, one of the sponsors of the legislation. He went on to say that it would be up to state and local agencies to figure out how to "operationalize" this concept.
On the international stage, much of the discussion about a human right to water is wrapped up in the legal mechanics of treaties and policies at the United Nations. Patricia Jones, program manager for the environmental justice program of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, favors the concept of an "International Bill of Human Rights" that would be comprised of direct obligations and treaties that would make the human right to water both explicit and implicit. World Health Organization activists have been working on similar ideas but focused more on trying to stop the spread of endemic diseases, requiring regional governments to commit to the human right to water to receive funding for water projects.
"From a legal point of view, there most definitely is a human right to water, which is part of the right to an adequate standard of living," argues Thorsten Keifer, a human rights expert with Bread for the World, a 50-year-old German nonprofit organization. "The question of how such a right to water can finally be recognized is a very good one as there is nothing like an agreed-upon check list for recognition of implied or new human rights in international law."
From his vantage point, the right to water is not at all at odds with goals of efficiency, reduced water use and effective pricing. "The right to water does not mean that water should per se be for free, but that it should be affordable for all people," he said. "That the human right to water means that everyone should have access to water free of charge is a common misconception – propagated by a handful of activists – that has really interfered with discussions on the issue for far too long. Everyone who can pay should pay!"
So how does a corporation fulfill the human right to water? Coca-Cola has developed a "rights-based approach" because water is so fundamental to its business, and has such large impacts on ecosystems and people. This policy applies to existing and new production, and bottling plants.
"In essence, what this approach means is that our use of water should not infringe on the ability of humans to access water or impact the groundwater or the general population. Our presence as an economic entity should not raise the price of water and make water less affordable to the local community," said Greg Koch, global director, water stewardship, for the Coca-Cola Co.
Harry Ott, a retired Coca-Cola executive and a senior fellow with Future 500, a San Francisco-based organization, added this: "What I've learned is that one must meet with the local community on a regular basis, ideally, before you begin building or operating. One not only needs a government license, but a social license."
He noted that Coca-Cola's employees benefit from better water management. "If our employees have poor water quality at their homes, then they get sick and cannot work."
The California context
Californians will likely face escalating water bills to pay for facilities to treat contamination and to upgrade aging infrastructure. Many supporters of AB 1242 are concerned about the cost implications for disenfranchised citizens, particularly low- income Central Valley residents.
Some environmental organizations, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, argue that we do not charge enough for water, and that's why so much is wasted.
"We need to decouple revenue from sales," argued Ronnie Cohen, water policy director for NRDC, referencing pricing strategies employed in the electricity sector in California. "The city of Los Angeles has such an adjustment mechanism to account for (water) conservative programs, but most water agencies lose money if people conserve too much. These water agencies need to sell water to collect revenue to run their programs."
California part of the conversation
AB 1242 does not delve into any of these specifics of water pricing or water management, but it is viewed as the first step in addressing water issues most pressing in the Central Valley akin to safety and cost issues more commonly witnessed in the developing world. California does not have a universal statewide lifeline water rate or allocation – one similar to our lifeline rates for energy and phone service – so when costs become excessive, families cannot pay their bills and risk losing water service entirely.
The issues facing the Central Valley are much more common in the developing world and China, where, oddly enough, multinationals often are better at cleaning up their acts than are local governments.
AB 1242's general affirmation of the human right to water is intended to address a specific challenge regarding groundwater contamination and access to affordable water in Central California. But it is also part of a much larger conversation.
Declaring a human right to water is one thing. Figuring out how to guarantee access to this elixir of life is a Rubik's cube. Yet we certainly must begin somewhere, and soon.
Peter Asmus is an environmental writer based in Stinson Beach and author of the new book "Introduction to Energy in California," published by the University of California Press.