Reprinted with permission from the September 2004 issue of Science and Theology News

BARCELONA, Spain - Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right, declared scientists, diplomats and water-rights activists, at a conference entitled "Water for Life and Security," in Barcelona this summer. The conference resulted in a written set of principles for a Global Convention on the Right to Water, which will eventually go before the United Nations for approval.

Former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev who headlined the event stated that "water is the number one problem in Africa and Asia," and called for a "global perestroika" to restructure the world's economies in a way that fulfills mankind's most basic needs.

More than 1.5 billion people lack access to drinking water and 2.5 billion live without sanitation. In addition, 5 million people -2 million of them children - die each year from water-related diseases, such as polio and diptheria.

However, the issue is not about water scarcity but about governance, the experts said. It will take an additional $30 billion to $40 billion of yearly investment in water development - on top of the current $80 billion - to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of 2000. These guidelines drawn up by the United Nations General Assembly aim to cut in half the number of people without access to drinking water by 2015, said Andras Szollosi-Nagy, UNESCO's deputy assistant director-general of natural sciences.

"It sounds big, but not when you think that it's only 2 percent of global annual military spending," Szollosi-Nagy said. "Then, it's peanuts."

Rich and poor countries have an equal stake in a world in which two-thirds of the population under 25 has no access to drinking water. In fact, the potential economic gains are great: for every dollar invested in water development, the return is estimated at between $3 or $4, or a total of $84 billion per year, he added.

The "new water culture" movement has been growing since activists called for universal access to clean water in the Montreal Charter of 1990. Grassroots leaders attracted U.N. General Assembly support before launching the World Water Forum in Marrakech, Morocco, in 1997, when scientists, politicians, farmers, teachers and unions met for the first time to discuss the state of the world's water. The forum convened in The Hague in 2000 and again last year in Kyoto, where 25,000 participants and a quarter of a million visitors witnessed the release of a Declaration of Water Rights.

"Water is the crisis of the century, a war that must be waged in our towns and cities" where 900 million people, or 43 percent of the developing world, lives, Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, director of U.N. Habitat, said at the Barcelona gathering. Opening trade barriers and relieving poor countries of vast levels of foreign debt would be an appropriate place for Western countries to start, she said.

Drafted by the citizen groups International Secretariat for Water and the World Assembly of Water Wisdom, the Global Convention on the Right to Water seeks to define water security, safety, sovereignty, sustainability, financing and other issues related to the "fundamental right of access to water and sanitation" as a universal, inalienable right.

According to others at the conference, water is not only a basic human right but also a part of our cultural heritage.

"You can't treat water as though it were gasoline or Coca-Cola," said Henri Smets of The Water Academy in France, an institute critical of the policies the developed world has forced developing countries to adopt, resulting in the privatization of water systems worldwide. "One has to give water to those who can't pay for it. It's proportional to population - it's not like meat, where the poorer you are, the less you eat."

In the words of the U.N. Environment Program's executive director, Klaus Toepfer, "sustainable development is nothing less than the peace policy for the future, and disarmament comes by bringing water to the people."

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