Elemental War

The good news is that the American delegation to the United Nations General Assembly did not vote against a recent resolution that safe drinking water and sanitation were fundamental human rights.

The bad news is that our delegation could not bring itself to vote in favor of the resolution. [We abstained, along with 40 other nations out of 163, with the non-committed comprised primarily of industrialized states. There were no outright "no" votes.]

Why would we be so hesitant to go on the record that access to clean drinking water and decent sanitation should be a basic human right? The answer, sad to say, stems from unease related to the market-based orientation of our government. There is discomfort at the prospect of being legally obligated, if potable water is available, to provide it to everyone, whether or not they could afford to pay for it. That might complicate matters for corporations managing water systems for profit, a water distribution type system (as opposed to government ownership) looked upon with favor by American administrations with a pro-privatization bent.

The resolution stated that safe water is "a legal entitlement rather than a commodity sold for profit or a charitable service." In the eyes of the resolution sponsors, water is akin to air, a very meaningful definition for the planet's estimated 884 million people with no access to clean water.

In abstaining, our UN representative contended that designating clean water as a fundamental human right was against international law. Well then, why not change the law pronto? Legality notwithstanding, isn't refusal to recognize such a right inconsistent with American moral values? Wouldn't treating inability to pay as reason to withhold access to a substance essential to life be an act of genocide against the poor?

Surprisingly, many developing African nations with severe water problems either abstained or did not vote at all on the resolution. Come to think of it, maybe that is not so surprising. Just as some wealthy nations were wary of a resolution that could conceivably obligate them to provide more foreign financial aid than they were prepared to give, so were some developing countries leery of formally being directed by the outside world to equitably administer that water-related aid (and live up to their responsibilities).

Our UN delegation is worried about the legal implications if access to water is defined as an inalienable right. Let's get the moral principle down on paper that water will not be denied to those who can't afford to pay, and work out the legal details later. It's the right thing to do.

Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington, D.C. and the author of the forthcoming book, Green Morality, due for release at the end of the summer.