Water as a Gift and Right
Statement of the Ecumenical Team coordinated by the World Council of Churches to the12th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD12),New York, April 19-30, 2004
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Note: This statement has been prepared by the Ecumenical Team at CSD12 as an analysis
from a theological and ethical perspective of some of the key advocacy issues related to
water on the CSD12 agenda. It is intended for use in discussions with delegates and other
participants at CSD12 but also for post-CSD12 activity through sharing with partners,
capacity-building on global advocacy related to water within our respective networks, and
in the developing ecumenical collaboration on water involving the WCC, member churches
and relief and development agencies.
1. Threats to water for the most vulnerable and responses of communities
2. Theological and ethical foundations for water as gift and right
3. Advocacy Issues:
3.1. Support and expansion of community-based initiatives
3.2. Overseas Development Aid (ODA) issues related to water projects and
3.3. Trade and privatization concerns
3.4. UN Decade on Water 2005-2015
3.5. International legal framework options
1. Threats to water for the most vulnerable and responses of communities
Water is a foundation for the life of human beings and other ecosystem members
of the One Earth Community. But that foundation is under threat from many
The people of the small island atoll of Kiribati in the South Pacific are finding
their wells more frequently inundated with salt water from the rising sea
levels attributable to human-induced climate change making the water from
the wells unusable for drinking or agriculture.
In many areas of Ghana, water services are managed by private corporations
who operate on a cost-recovery and shareholder profit basis. A family's inability
to pay results in their water access being cut off.
Women and children of Zaragosa Island in the Philippines spend 2-4 hours
per day travelling to the mainland to collect water from a municipal faucet.
The 1994 New Mineral Policy of the Government of India brought transnational
corporations into joint ventures with Indian mining companies with
vastly expanded mining endeavours. The impact on communities and the environment
has been disastrous including deforestation, discharge of toxic efflu-
ents and dumping of toxic wastes into waterways and the uprooting of thousands
of people, mostly Adivasis (tribal peoples).
The Grassy Narrows First Nation (Indigenous People) in northern Ontario,
Canada have suffered cultural dislocation when their traditional burial grounds
and sacred sites were flooded by massive hydro dams and their health has been
compromised by mercury poisoning from an upstream paper mill.
In 2000, Azurix, a water services subsidiary of the former US energy giant ENRON,
signed a contract to deliver water services in large areas of Argentina. Setting the
recuperation of their initial investment as their highest priority led to deterioration
of infrastructure, interruptions in service, and contamination of water supply
due to negligence. Because of the poor service, many consumers refused to
pay their bills. Shortly thereafter the ENRON crisis exploded and Azurix decided
to abandon the water service and break their contractual obligations.
Communities are organizing to respond to such threats to their access to water:
Local farmers and villagers in Kerala, India were met with mass arrests in 2003
when they tried to protest the unsustainable withdrawal of up to a million gallons
of water daily from 65 area bore holes by the Coca-Cola Company.
Nevertheless, persistent community pressure and a supportive local council
have led to a ban on further withdrawals until the arrival of the monsoons in
June 2004. Coca-Cola is appealing the ruling.
In Brazil, civil society organizations are drawing on grants from local banks
and government to build rain water cisterns with the objective of creating
1,000,000 low cost water facilities for poor communities.
Civil society groups are demonstrating that an eco-village model can transform
waste into renewable energy and channel domestic water to restore the
environment. Protecting the Nakivubo wetlands in Uganda in this way can,
through natural processes, do the task that would cost $2 million annually in
traditional sewage purification services.
An international network of social groups, environmental organizations, women's
networks, trade unions and faith communities is mobilizing a campaign to prevent
water from being included in the World Trade Organization negotiations
as a "goods and service".
Michigan (USA) Citizens for Water Conservation and other plaintiffs were successful
in convincing a judge in 2003 to force the Nestlé Corporation to terminate
withdrawals of spring water in Mecosta County on the grounds that
Nestlé's water operations unlawfully diminished lakes, streams and wetlands.
Theological and ethical foundations for water as gift and right
Water is the cradle and source of life, and one of the most potent bearers of cultural
and religious meanings. Christian theological reflection has its roots in these
Life in all its forms is impossible without water. It was only the development of
planetary conditions that allowed for the presence of large quantities of water in
its liquid state that made possible the emergence of life on earth. Without water
and its particular qualities, biological life as we know it would be impossible.
Water is a precondition for life, a given, a gift.
In Christian theological reflection, creation begins with the spirit of God "brooding
over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:2). Later, drought becomes a symbol
and image of divine judgment (Isaiah 33:9), and the eschatological hope of the
prophets comes to be expressed through the promise that rivers will spring up in
the desert (Isaiah 43:19). Communities experience threat not only through the
absence of water but when there is too much, as in sea level rise, and when it is
impure as a result of inadequate sanitation. For the Christian community these
images are further developed in baptism where water becomes the image of renewal,
of promise, and of hope.
The centrality of water to life, and the experience of water as gift are two sources
of our affirmation of water as a basic human right. Just as the biblical Jubilee
declared that land belonged, in the final analysis, to God and not to any particular
individual, so we would affirm that water should be part of the global commons.
To treat water as a gift of God and human right implies that clean fresh
water should be available to meet the basic needs of all, rather than be treated as
a private commodity to be bought and sold.
Human community is dependent on water, not just physically, but socially and
culturally. In the scriptures we see the identification of particular cultures with
the rivers from which their sustenance is drawn. When the people "refuse the
gentle waters of Shiloah" (Isaiah 8:6), we are being told that they have forgotten
their divine vocation. The consequence of this is a judgment lived out in exile
beside the wrong river (Ps. 137). This correlation between culture and the water
systems beside which people live, and in relationship to which they gain their
livelihood, provides a basis for the church's solidarity with Indigenous Peoples
and, indeed, with all peoples who are displaced from their home and alienated
from the waters that have traditionally given them life.
3. Advocacy Issues
3.1. Support and expansion of community-based initiatives
Expanding the support (sometimes referred to as scaling up') of communitybasedinitiatives has a great potential to contribute towards the MillenniumDevelopment Goals related to water and sanitation. In various regions of theworld, there are encouraging examples of the effectiveness of communitybasedorganizing to meet people's needs for water: In Brazil, ASA (a forum for articulation of the semi-arid region) - a FORUMof non-governmental organizations formed by 11 States, has been createdto co-ordinate a wider development approach by all stakeholders with focuson promoting coexistence and development of nature and people in thesemi-arid region. The orientation is not to change the nature of the semiaridecology, but to adjust, accommodate and sustain development. Theproject of construction of one million cisterns (P1MC) comes under theumbrella of ASA. It promotes and monitors technical specification, qualityof work, lobby/advocacy, organization and mobilization of civil societies,etc. Grant funding is provided by the government of Brazil and an associationof private banks. Integrated watershed management is being up-scaled in development inMaharastra, India. In Kenya:
The people of Kola in Machakos have created 120 sand dams in order to
harvest the flood waters from the long rains that come from the mountains.
This model can be easily replicated in many places in the region.
Civil society organizations such as ITDG and Maji na Ufanisi have worked
with slum dwellers to access urban water supply and improve sanitary
conditions, improving the livelihoods of 45,000 residents in Kibera,
Kangemi and Kiambiu informal settlements. Bio-gas pilots on human
waste re-use for methane production and consequent lighting and cooking
options are further cases that successfully demonstrate sustainable
development strategies in informal settlements.
Sand dams and mountain catchment have been promoted in Northern
Kenya through the Pastoralist Integrated Support Programme with a
resulting recharge of ground water, reduction in soil erosion and improvement
of the livelihoods of 10,000 pastoralists between 2002-2004.
Sustainable financing of household sanitation has been promoted in Bangladesh
through the partnerships of multilateral institutions, civil society organizations
The Okavango River Basin Every River Has its People' in Southern Africa
is an area where stakeholders including government and parastatals (semigovernmental
bodies) have successfully enhanced livelihoods and at the
same time protect the shared international river resource.
CSD12 Ecumenical Team recommendations regarding support and expansion of community-based initiatives:
governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector and civil society
should increase support to community based and driven initiatives with a
priority on those that recognise leadership of women and the energy of an
support to community-level service providers should be increased in planning,
strategies and national budgets as the key component to meeting the
Millennium Development Goals for improved water and sanitation;
the inter-connection of water access and adequate sanitation should be
emphasized in community projects;
an ecosystem approach should be utilized because it expands our perspective
to include the full community of life, human and non-human, with all
its inherent integrity and because it increases our awareness of the inter-
connectedness of the range of dynamics which can influence the well-being
3.2. Overseas Development Aid (ODA) issues related to water projects and funding
Access to water and sanitation form an entry point to human development
and poverty elimination. Therefore they should be at the top of poverty elimination
strategies, which is not the case at the moment.
The implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and of
the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation on water and sanitation requires
immediately stronger investment in the water sector. There is a consensus on
this within the multilateral, official and non-governmental development organizations,
but there are contradictions and discussions about the adequate sources
and necessary terms for these additional investments. Thus, as important as
the availability of funds, are the political decisions to make sure that the financial
means in deed do help to establish socially just and ecologically sustainable
water and sanitation systems for the poor.
Key areas for reaching the MDGs are the rural areas and the urban slums.
Geographically, Africa is the most needy continent, with approximately half
of its population being without access to sufficient and clean water. Yet, an
analysis of the present flow of ODA money of OECD countries to the water
and sanitation sector shows, that there is an urgent need to better focus the
Only 12% of the total aid to the water sector in 2000-2001 went to countries
where less than 60% of the population had access to safe water. The
share of Africa, where the need is extremely high, has even slightly decreased
during the last years.
According to the same analysis, the vast amount of money went into large
projects in urban areas, accounting for over three-quarters of the funds for
water and sanitation projects.
Also, the aid was channelled to relatively few countries. From 1997-2001,
the ten largest recipients received 48% of the total funds. China, India,
Vietnam, Peru, Morocco and Egypt were among the top ten together with
Mexico, Malaysia, Jordan and the Palestinian-administered area, and none
of the most needy sub-Saharan African states.
Furthermore, many of these projects are financed through loans rather than
grants. For example in 2000-01, about 57% of total ODA in the water sector,
took the form of loans, and thus increased the foreign debts.
In view of this situation, we consider it urgent that the community of developed
countries fulfills its obligation to help poor countries to be able to guarantee
and protect the human right to water and adjusts ODA politics accordingly.
In the same context, we welcome the intention of the European Union to
establish a new Water Facility with more than one billion Euro for the promotion
of the MDGs in the water and sanitation sector in African, Caribbean
and Pacific countries. At the same time, we urge the European decision-makers
to take into serious account the UN Secretary General's statement that privatized
water projects generally did not reach the poor. EU Water Facility
Funds should clearly be excluded for subsidies for private foreign investments
in the water sector, under the category of risk mitigation. Public funds, which
are earmarked for official development aid, should under no means duplicate
or replace the existing financial instruments on this behalf, like export credit
agencies. Also, the EU Water Facility proposal should explicitly recognize
that water is a basic human right and should address how the Facility supports
the fulfillment of this right.
CSD12 Ecumenical Team recommendations on ODA issues related to
water projects and funding:
fulfill the Monterrey commitment of raising development aid to 0.7% of
the Gross Domestic Product,
increase the share of aid to water and sanitation within ODA to a minimum
prioritize rural areas and urban slums in the poorest countries, specifically
sub-Saharan African states,
focus on the reform and improvement of public water and sanitation systems,
and avoid pre-determination in favour of corporate private sector control,
follow a flexible approach based on an in-depth analysis of the given situation
and on community participation.
3.3. Trade and privatization concerns
Water is a basic human need. The human right to water is recognized as a precondition
for other human rights - such as the right to life, appropriate nutrition
and sufficient medical care. (UN Doc. E/C.12/2002/11)
Yet when that which has traditionally been owned by communities is transferred
to private ownership it makes impossible the protection of a "right" as
it makes water a "commodity" that is "tradable" for a price and at a profit.
"Privatization" in the context of ownership of water replaces community and
people's ownership of water sources with private ownership. Such an approach
is a serious roadblock to achieving the Millennium Development Goal on
water that seeks to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to
safe drinking water by 2015.
There is little by way of clarity and coherence, regarding water sources, supply
and service, and its use, in the current approaches to resolve the world
water crisis. International financial institutions have aggressively promoted
an approach that naturalizes the "provision of water services" as a way of think-
ing of water use. The GATS definition of "supply of service" includes the production,
distribution, marketing, sale and delivery of service (Article XXVIII
Proponents for inclusion of water as a "service" under the GATS believe that
such a course of action would help alleviate the world water crisis and help
meet the Millennium Development Goal on water. This approach rests on the
argument that the current world water crisis is the consequence of water services
being part of the public sector. Public sector provision of water services
is strongly critiqued for its inefficiency, low resource capacity and lack of technical
and operational capacity.
Strongly promoted by the World Bank and the IMF, the market-based approach
to water management has greatly strengthened the transnational corporations'
role in providing water supply and sanitation services, particularly in the developing
countries. Reviewing the World Bank's approach outlined in its Water
Resources Management (1995) clarifies the position of the Bank as fully supportive
of ending the government monopoly in this sector and supporting the
need for governments to be selective in the responsibilities they assume for
A review of the polices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 40 countries
found that during 2000, IMF loan agreements in 12 countries included
conditions imposing water privatization or full cost recovery. When the IMF
presses for privatization of water it is difficult for countries from the global
South to withstand the pressure. Also, compliance with IMF conditionalities
is a pre-requisite, frequently, for access to other international creditors and
investors, including the World Bank.
The urgent challenge, both in the South and the North, is to develop a positive
vision of the public sector models that are responsive and effective in
meeting water needs. The purpose should be clearly not to promote blueprints,
but rather to create space for local communities to develop their own
solutions and maintain their traditional rights and approaches to water use.
Designed properly, with the full involvement of all stakeholders, private management
of water supply and provision may improve efficiency and minimize
wastage. However the experience of several countries shows that high tariffs
and rising costs of provision have impacted negatively those who need to benefit
from development efforts the most - the poor and the marginalized.
CSD12 Ecumenical Team recommendations on trade and privatization
concerns related to water services:
Water is a public good,
if water resources are to be a public good then the state has to manage this
resource for the benefit of the public, not only for the present generation,
but the generations to come;
implications of this responsibility of the state include:
recognition and practice of good governance,
adequate opportunity to participate in decision-making by the affected
communities especially the indigenous and the marginalized,
responses to the global water crisis should avoid narrowing available options
to "privatization" as the "solution" (by international financial institutions
like the IMF and the World Bank or by rules and provisions in the GATS
negotiations and agreements), and should facilitate the learning process
through the exchange of experiences amongst communities and developing
3.4. UN Decade on Water 2005-2015
In December 2003 the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to
proclaim a second UN Decade on Water, starting in March 2005, after the
first one during the 1980s.
This decision reminds the international community that water and sanitation
are strategic key issues for overcoming poverty and for achieving development,
and also calls for special and continuous efforts in order to achieve the MDG
on water and sanitation. The challenge is huge and requires a goal of daily
connecting an additional 280,000 people to water and 384,000 to sanitation.
The slogan of the UN Decade of the 1980s was "Water for All" and it succeeded
in bringing water to an additional 1.6 billion people, many of them
in rural areas. But the strategy was very much predicated on the model of
industrialized countries and their expensive and centralized technology, which
requires large quantities of water - a model that was not affordable and financially
sustainable for the highly indebted developing countries.
During the 1990s, strong efforts were made to mobilize private investment,
hoping to close the financial gaps and to achieve more efficiency and better
management. More recently, the World Bank and the transnational water companies
that were the strongest promoters of this strategy have acknowledged
that the expectations have not been fulfilled and that the poor mostly have
not been reached.
Recommendations of the CSD12 Ecumenical Team regarding the UN
Decade on Water 2005-2015:
Governments, multilateral bodies, the private sector and civil society should
utilize the new UN Decade to:
build on the learnings of the past,
focus on socially and ecologically sustainable strategies which challenge
and strengthen public responsibility for the realization of the human right
to water, and
involve local people not only as clients, but as citizens.
3.5. International legal framework options
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its General
Comment #15 on the implementation of Articles 11 and 12 of the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, noted that "the human
right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite
for the realization of other human rights." This human right has
received global recognition and is firmly established in a number of international
human rights instruments. By ratifying these treaties and instruments,
States have voluntarily accepted the obligations to progressively realize the
right to water and sanitation.
Water needs the protection of international law that incorporates a rightsbased
approach. A water convention binding under international law would
champion a forward-looking water policy that is based on the human right to
water, recognize water as a common good of humanity, safeguard the basis of
life for future generations and create equitable distribution. Behind the call
for binding law are questions of principle such as: Is access to water a human
right or just a need? Is water a common good or a tradable commodity? Who
has authority over access to water?
An international water convention is needed:
To establish the right to water for all people in a binding manner.
To guarantee the right to water for coming generations.
To protect water as a public good belonging to humanity.
To declare as a core task of governments that of guaranteeing the right to
water, and making nation-states and their authorities responsible for the
respect, protection and fulfillment of the right to water.
To prevent water from being privatized and degraded to a tradable good.
To ensure that the human right to water takes precedence over international
trade agreements (e.g. WTO).
To place springs, groundwater, rivers and lakes under the comprehensive
protection of international law.
To guarantee women's water-related rights as human rights.
To protect the local and national water rights of Indigenous Peoples under
To enshrine traditional water culture and local water rights (e.g. of nomads)
in national law.
To ensure that the people who have a democratic right in determining and
deciding national and local water strategies.
To provide all people both internationally and domestically with effective
judicial remedies for demanding fulfillment of the right to water.
CSD12 Ecumenical Team recommendations regarding international
legal frameworks for water:
states should recognize and observe their obligations regarding water as a
human right that flow from their ratification of the International Covenant
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
negotiations should be initiated through the United Nations for the preparation
of an international freshwater convention.
FIACAT's* 30th Anniversary
Message from WCC, 3 December, 2004
The WCC since its inception has condemned the practice of torture on the basis
of the gospel's emphasis on the value of human beings in the sight of God, on the
atoning and redeeming work of Christ that has given to the human person true
dignity and on love as a motive for action. The 5th WCC Assembly at Nairobi
1975 noted that there was evidence of gross violations of the right to personal
dignity and such violations included several cases of torture. National and internal
security police and para police forces had indulged in the violation of human
rights to personal dignity.
Pursuing the above theme, the WCC Central Committee in 1977 extensively
dealt with consequences arising out of the evil practice of torture and stated:
"Today we stand under God's judgment, for in our generation the darkness, deceit
and inhumanity of the torture chamber have become a more widespread and atrocious
reality than at any other time in history. No human practice is so abominable,
nor so widely condemned. Yet physical and mental torture and other forms
of cruel and inhuman treatment are now being applied systematically in many
countries and practically no nations can claim to be free of them."
Despite the progress made on human rights concerns in recent years, the practice
of torture continues unabated. In fact, since the September 11th attacks in New
York that gave rise to an increase in emergency legislations against terrorism, the
practice of torture has increased. In some societies, it has been given a legal cover
thus allowing impunity to the perpetrators.
International law in clear and absolute terms prohibits the practice of torture in
all circumstances. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
"No one should be subjected to torture or to cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment
or punishment." Yet, despite universal condemnation of the practice, torture
continues to inflict physical and mental pain and agony on countless victims
and their families.
People all over the world were appalled by the reports of torture and maltreatment
of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The image of helpless prisoners
being abused, sometimes sexually, shocked the entire civilized world. The
recent report of the International Red Cross, of abuse and torture of prisoners in
Guantanamo Bay, has further added to dismay and concern of human right defenders
about how serious are some governments in preventing the practice of torture.
((* FIACAT, Paris: Fédération Internationale de l'ACAT (Action des Chrétiens pour l'Abolition de
la Torture) - International Federation of ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture)
5273_THE CHURCHES 20/06/07 10:50 Page 58))
In Darfur, there are consistent reports of the use of torture to extract confessionsas well as reports of acts brutally committed by Janjaweed and security forcesagainst civilians.To prevent these evil practices it is essential that those responsible for torturemust be brought to justice. This principle should be applied uniformly, irrespectiveof the nationality or position of the person concerned. Governments mustcommit themselves to exercise jurisdiction over alleged torturers or extradite themto the country where they could be fairly persecuted.The WCC has urged its member churches amongst others to:- seek to ensure the compliance of their governments with the provisions of allinternational accepted norms and standards on the prevention of torture;- express their solidarity with churches and peoples elsewhere in their struggleto have these provisions strictly applied in their own countries;- encourage other initiatives to establish an international strategy to fight againsttorture and to create an international machinery to ban torture;- seek access to places of detention and interrogation centres in order to ensurethat persons held are not mistreated.The World Council of Churches is appreciative of the work done by organizationslike FIACAT and takes pride in participating in the collective effort toprevent torture. As Christians, we are called to share in God's mission for justiceand peace and respect for human dignity of all persons. The Spirit illuminatesour hearts today, we discern God's gift of dignity to each person and theirinherent right to acceptance and participation in the community without threatsof fear, violence and/or torture. Let us remind ourselves of the affirmation madeat the WCC Vancouver Assembly: "to work even more fervently for eliminationof all forms of inhumanity, brutality, discrimination, persecution and oppression."We pray that the evil practice of torture will soon be ended with our joint efforts.