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Recognizing the Right to Water

Earlier this month, 100 Canadian youth volunteers brought the precious gift of water to six villages in Kenya's Maasai Mara. They stood alongside community members as the water distribution system opened.
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The Canadian government is reluctant to recognize water as a human right. But, miles from Parliament Hill, we met Canadians who saw its vitality.

Earlier this month, we saw 100 Canadian youth volunteers bring the precious gift to six villages in Kenya's Maasai Mara. They stood alongside community members as a water distribution system opened and listened to a women's group leader.

"Maji ni uhai," she said. "Water is life."

It's not an expression so much as a truth. For the past year, community members and volunteers have been digging ditches and connecting pipes. Kiosks were built where people can pay three shillings for 20 gallons - money that's used to maintain the system and ensure the gift is a hand-up, not a handout.

"Clean drinking water is one of the most basic of all needs," said Nuchin Bollinger, a 16-year-old from Vancouver. "Just a small amount of drinking water can put such big smiles on the faces of many."

The elders blessed the water system as the woman spoke of its importance. She said it would relieve the burden of cholera, typhoid and diarrheal illnesses that kills one in five children before their fifth birthday. She said girls could now attend school, relieved of their long walks to the polluted river.

This project is the culmination of a year's work by dedicated, Canadian volunteers. So, it's a shame that as we hail this progress we also have to shake our heads at the Canadian government. Last month, Canada abstained from voting on a U.N. resolution making water a human right.

"We continue to assert that international human rights obligations in no way limit our sovereign right to manage our own resources," said Melissa Lantsman, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, last month.

This has become a typical reaction when Canada is faced with a resolution relating to water. We've rejected similar declarations in the past believing they compromise self-governance. The government is concerned they could translate into Canada being forced to provide water to golf courses in the arid American southwest. That puts sustainability in jeopardy.

"That's not the case with this resolution. Every nation has sovereign rights over its resources," says Darcey O'Callaghan, international police director with Food & Water Watch, an organization that campaigned for the resolution.

She explains the Bolivia-led agreement made it clear that the right to water wouldn't impede sovereign rights. Instead, it would be a first step in recognizing the importance of sustainability - something that seems lost on our government.

Canadians delegates claimed "the text was premature." That's hard to justify when 884 million people lack access to clean water today. The World Bank projects that number will rise by 2030, when demand is estimated to outpace supply by 40 per cent due to climate change and pollution.

The U.N. resolution was passed by 121 nations representing 5.4 billion people. The General Assembly hopes to use this support as leverage when calling for funding and sustainable technology transfer.

Through abstention, Canada has once again refused to take a moral stance against poverty. Our country has already fallen short on its Millennium Development Goal commitments, cut funding to gender empowerment and diverted money away from Africa.

Those inactions only succeed in hampering the efforts of Canadians working on all aspects of development.

The visiting volunteers we saw held babies whose health wouldn't be jeopardized by diarrheal illnesses and played with girls who will now receive an education. They even danced with women empowered to put more time into alternative income rather than fetching water.

"I was lucky enough to dawn on the realization that our developing nations are in dire need for clean water," says Bollinger. "For them it is the basis of having a future generation."

The Universal Declaration of Rights already recognized the right to life, liberty and security of person. Hopefully the Canadian government will soon hear when communities say maji ni uhai - water is life.