Clean Water is Basic Human Right, General Assembly Declares in Under-Reported Vote

There were no shouting matches about it on the cable news shows.  Very few newspapers covered the story.  And you had to search carefully to find it mentioned even on environmental blogs.

But this summer, in an historic vote, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution affirming the public right to clean drinking water for all.

The resolution noted that approximately 884 million people “lack access to safe drinking water” and more than 2.6 billion “do not have access to basic sanitation” services.

It declared that “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.”

And it called upon the nations of the world and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology “so as to assure safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.”

The resolution passed by a vote of 122 to zero.  Forty-one countries abstained, including the United States.

In an explanation of the U.S. abstention, John F. Sammis, U.S. Deputy Representative to the Economic and Social Council, stated that the United States “supports the goal of universal access to safe drinking water” and “hoped to negotiate and ultimately join consensus” on such a resolution but was concerned about the specific language of this text and the process of drafting it.

Despite the abstentions, the U.N. vote reflects widespread international support for this fundamental tenet and is worthy of attention.

Now, of course, comes the hard part -- turning the promise of clean water for all into a reality.  The ongoing human tragedy in Pakistan -- where millions of refugees are still without clean water in the wake of this summer’s widespread flooding – is a stark reminder of the scope of the challenge. 

While clean water is more abundant and more accessible in the United States, our nation too is facing serious water challenges.  Among the contaminants threatening some of America’s water supplies are perchlorate, atrazine, and chromium. And, of course, parts of the United States are also facing significant challenges in meeting existing demand for water, with the problem of water scarcity certain to worsen as a result of continued global warming. 

Here in the New York-Pennsylvania area, the number one regional environmental controversy this summer has been the threat to water resources posed by industrial drilling for natural gas using the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing in portions of the Marcellus Shale.

Passage of the landmark UN resolution seems like a worthy occasion to remind elected officials in the US that the fundamental right to clean water is one that most Americans believe in too.