Is Water a 'Right' or a 'Need'?: Day Seven at the World Water Forum in Istanbul

istanbul golden horn scene photo

Istanbul hosted the 5th World Water Forum along the banks of the Golden Horn.

"We are all connected by our need for water. We all fear thirst, and we all fear that our children will be thirsty," Michael Blackstock, a naturalist of First Nations descent, said Friday at a session on water and culture. "But if you asked a hydrologist and a fisherman, they would define 'water' very differently." After a week of discussing the topic from seemingly every possible angle, that definition was still very much contested as the 5th World Water Forum drew to a close.

In their concluding statement today, international members of more than 100 ministerial delegations agreed to non-binding measures to address pollution, floods, and disputes over water, but remained split over how the statement should define access to safe drinking water: as a "basic human right" or a "basic human need." The United States, Egypt, and Brazil objected to the former terminology, which was, in the end, not adopted in the official ministerial statement.

A Strong Counter-Statement
Dissenting delegates from more than twenty countries, primarily in Latin America, released a counter-declaration following the official end of the forum saying that they recognize access to water and sanitation as a human right. Nine of those countries -- Benin, Bolivia. Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, and Venezuela -- also signed a statement calling for future water forums to be organized within the framework of the United Nations, one of the main demands of the People's Water Forum and other protest groups.

Though it may sounds like semantics, the difference between a "right" and a "need" could have an impact on international laws and trade agreements like NAFTA. Deepening the dispute, the other major statement to come out of the 5th World Water Forum took the opposite stance. The Istanbul Water Consensus, a non-binding declaration on water-management strategies signed by local and regional leaders, included the assertions that:

Access to good quality water and sanitation is a basic right for all human beings and plays an essential role in life and livelihoods, the preservation of the health of the population and the fight against poverty;

Water is a public good and should therefore be under public control, even when its services are delegated partly or totally to the private sector;

Sanitation is equally important as water supply and needs to be given due consideration on the political agenda of local, regional, and national governments.

The local governments have committed, albeit voluntarily, to developing targets for things like increasing their per capita water supply or decreasing consumption (as appropriate to their socioeconomic status), improving water-quality standards, and reducing damages due to water-related disasters -- all crucial steps, especially for coastal cities like Istanbul, but steps that must actually be taken, and not just talked about.

More Coverage Of The 5th World Water Forum
What is this 'Big Water Meeting'? Day 1 at the World Water Forum
Linking Water, Conflict, Gender, and Migration: Day 2 at the World Water Forum
Accounting for Every Drop: Day 3 at the World Water Forum
Images of Inundation: Day 4 at the World Water Forum
Understanding the Sacred Value of Water: Day 5 at the World Water Forum
'Another Water Management is Possible': Day 6 at the World Water Forum

Is Water a 'Right' or a 'Need'?: Day Seven at the World Water Forum in Istanbul
Delegates from more than 100 countries agreed today to non-binding measures to address pollution, floods, and disputes over water, but disputed over whether access to safe drinking water should be defined as a basic human 'right' 'need.'

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