Maude Barlow: Tackling the water crisis is the only way to safeguard people and the planet

News 23.03.2023

On March 22-24 2023, the first United Nations Conference on Water in almost 50 years is set to be held in New York. Ahead of the conference, we talked to 2005 Right Livelihood Laureate Maude Barlow who warned that finding ways to provide clean drinking water and sanitation to all was essential to the well-being of not only people but the entire planet.

Barlow has been a tireless advocate for the human right to water and sanitation. She has worked to ensure that communities struggling with water rights are not forgotten and has highlighted the dangers of taking water for granted. Barlow was instrumental in the UN General Assembly’s recognition of the human right to water in 2010. 

Why should we care about the water crisis? 

“We are in a race against time with the declining water stocks,” Barlow said.  “You can have all the human rights you want, but if there’s no clean water, and there’s no facility for sanitation, then it’s kind of an empty promise.”

In 1977, the first UN Water Conference was held in Mar del Plata, Argentina. It marked the first time that all UN member states got together to acknowledge that a water crisis existed. Delegates from 105 countries participated, and a set of ten resolutions were made. 

“They came up with this statement: all people have the right to have access to drinking water equal to their basic needs,” Barlow said.

The next significant global conference on water was not held until 15 years later in Dublin, Ireland, with the objective of “assessing the current status of the world’s freshwater resources in relation to present and future water demands”. It became obvious that the path to recognising clean water as a human right would include taking into account water as commodity, as one of the four Guiding Principles from the conference stated: “Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good.” The outcome document continued by stating that it was vital to recognise all humans’ fundamental right to clean water and sanitation, but notably added, “at an affordable price” to signal the economic dimension. 

“We can see that between the conference in 1977 and that of 1992 in Dublin, [British Prime Minister] Margret Thatcher had privatised water services in England, and the World Bank was starting to promote privatisation of water services in the global south,” Barlow said. 

In response to the privatisation of water services and the increasing promotion of water commodification, Barlow emphasised the urgent need to recognise the value of freshwater as a human right and public trust.

“There is a mighty contest around this dwindling supply of freshwater on planet Earth,” Barlow said. “That is between those who say that it’s a market commodity, put it on the open market, like oil and gas and let the market decide the price. On the other hand, of course, are those who say it’s not only a human right, but it’s a public trust, and therefore it must be democratically controlled, and local communities must have a huge say in what happens to local water sources.”

The human right to water

In 2008 and 2009, Barlow served as Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the UN General Assembly. She led the UN’s campaign to have water recognised as a human right., 

“People don’t believe it today when I tell them it was a huge fight, it was an uphill battle,” Barlow noted. 

Eighteen years after the meeting in Dublin, the UN General Assembly adopted a historical resolution in 2010 recognising “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” 

Barlow remembers the day clearly. 

“The day in the General Assembly, on June 28, 2010, I was on the balcony,” she said. “I was standing with staff who were in tears, we all thought we were going to lose. And then the vote came and we won overwhelmingly.”  

The resolution adopted by the General Assembly called on states and international organisations to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation. No country voted against it, 41 abstained, and 122 countries voted in favour. 

“None of them had the guts to vote against it, even though they were fighting it,” she remembers. “It was just an absolutely important symbolic day, and in my view, the human family took an evolutionary step forward on that day.” 

Barlow stood next to Pablo Solón, the then-Ambassador of Bolivia to the UN, who presented the resolution to the General Assembly during the vote. Neither understood that they had just won. 

“This was just incredibly important,” she told us. “Since then, we have almost 50 countries that have either appended it to their constitution or introduced separate laws to ensure the human right to water.”

Another groundbreaking shift happened after the 2010 recognition of the right to safe and clean drinking water. The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva emphasised that it was the government’s responsibility to ensure drinking water and sanitation. 

“Basically they said ‘do not turn this over to the private sector, they are in it for the money’,” Barlow explained. “This is not their responsibility but your responsibility.”

The urgent need for action on water

2023 is especially important for freshwater and sanitation. Even though the UN formally adopted the human right to water and sanitation in 2010, 2.2 billion people are still forced to drink contaminated water daily, and 4.2 billion people don’t have adequate sanitation. Barlow said she hoped that the conference in March would discuss what it means to implement the right to water and sanitation. 

“We need governments to come together and that’s why this conference is so important, to deal with the crucial issue of what we are doing to water,” she explained, 

Water is often seen as a subset of the climate discussion. With the conference, Barlow said she sees the opportunity to highlight that water impacts climate, and how we protect and restore watersheds are part of the answer to how we save the planet from climate change.  

“My passionate hope for the conference in New York City is that we deal with this and not just talk about what people call best practices, or how technology is going to save water quality,” she said. “It’s not going to save water, there may be some ways it’s going to help us, but saving water is going to be through good, decent regulation.” 

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