UN Photo/Manuel Elias (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

UN Photo/Manuel Elias (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 

More space for rights-holders and human rights defenders

“We should use the UN conference to demand a space for dialogue and joint collaboration between the UN system and the actual rights-holders, the defenders of water,” said Pedro Arrojo Agudo, UN special rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation.

He was speaking at a webinar organized by the People’s Water Forum to look at opportunities the UN conference represents for movements and local governments defending water. The People’s Water Forum promotes water justice by bringing together the voices of frontline communities and water defenders to protect water as a common good and access for all as a human right. The WCC’s Ecumenical Water Network is one of the founders and supporters of the Forum.

Arrojo Agudo and the other panellists agreed that the voices of those most affected by the inequitable and unsustainable use of water, like many Indigenous people, are not adequately represented, not listened to, when water policies are being discussed and shaped.

Stakeholders from the corporate sector do not face the same limitations. “Big international water companies spend a lot of time and resources on making connections with government entities,” noted David Boys, deputy general secretary of Public Services International (PSI). Boys has years of experience defending the public control and management of water services. He points out that the networking between governments and corporations typically takes place behind closed doors.

Water Action Agenda presents opportunity for civil society

Making the perspectives of Indigenous peoples, grassroots activists, and human rights defenders be heard at the conference will not be easy. “Only accredited organizations can participate and organize side-events,” explains Dinesh Suna, coordinator of the WCC’s Ecumenical Water Network (EWN). However, there is another key tool for influencing the outcomes of the conference, which Suna urges civil society to make wide use of.

The Water Action Agenda, a compilation of commitments, pledges, and actions, will be a key outcome of the conference. Any interested organization can submit contributions via the UN 2023 Water Conference’s website.

“The Water Action Agenda is a chance for us to show what environmentally sustainable, democratic, rights-based, and holistic water management looks like,” Suna underscores.

Manifesto on Water Justice

To amplify the voices of water defenders and frontline communities, the Peoples Water Forum brought together water justice organizations, social movements, human rights defenders and representatives of Indigenous peoples from around the world to draw up a manifesto on water justice.

The manifesto calls for rights-based, democratic, and participatory water policies at the global, regional, national, and subnational levels, recognizing water as a human right and common good. The manifesto also calls for the establishment of an intergovernmental mechanism on water and sanitation, “in which human rights subjects and holders participate fully, effectively and meaningfully.”

Water is more than a human right

Recognition of water as a human right is key but water policies need to be based on a much more holistic understanding of water, agreed panellists at the webinar. Darío José Mejía Montalvo who belongs to the Indigenous Zenú Peoples of San Andres Sotavent in Colombia and is president of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “Water is the mother, it has both a practical and spiritual value, it is a source of life.”

Marcela Olivera, a water commons organizer based in Cochabamba, Bolivia, also called for promoting a broader understanding of water. “The UN agenda should take up the discussion of water as a substance of life and as a common good that should not be the object of commodification and financialization,” Olivera found.

Meera Karunananthan, director at Blue Planet Project, stressed the importance the human right to water has had for many water justice struggles. “But it is also a limited framework. Many struggles have been around the control over water, about developing systems for more democratic decision-making around water.”

Endorse the Water Justice Manifesto

Contribute to the UN’s Water Action Agenda

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