The Governance of Water

A speech by Anwar Fazal, Advisor, Water Watch Penang; at the launching of the book "Learning About Water" at the Caring Complex, Penang, Malaysia on World Water Day, 22nd March 2003

The governance of water is going to be one of the central survival issues of humanity. Water is the source of life and yet we recklessly poison it, misuse it and also fight over it. All over the world there is a new recognition about the importance of water. People are even discovering that our bodies are also mostly water!

We need a holistic approach to understanding and managing water and there are at least three challenges:

  • Most people are seriously ignorant about the issue of water in its totality.
  • Its borderless character transcends local and national political boundaries.
  • It is a "common or public" good as well as increasingly an "economic" and "private" good. And there are deep concerns about the "corporate hijacking" of water services and the fear that "cash register ethics" will prevail over conservation and care of the environment.

One could articulate the key principles of water as follows - I call them the "panchasila" (or five principles) of water:

  1. We must respect the right of water - it is sacred and it is life.
  2. We must ensure the right to water - that no person is denied access to it for their survival and health needs.
  3. Water resources must be managed with efficiency, effectiveness and equity.
  4. People who manage water must be trained holistically about water and must be made accountable for its care and conservation.
  5. There must be popular participation of all the stake holders, citizens, government and corporations to ensure a community based approach to the care and management of the water cycle.

The best elaboration of this "Panchasila of Water" comes in the form of a global statement which is widely accepted by well informed and progressive thinkers and citizens groups. It is called "Water is Life - A Civil Society World Water Vision for Action". The essential elements of the vision are as follows:

"Water belongs to the earth and all species for all time. It is an inalienable human right and a public trust to be protected and nurtured by all peoples, communities and nations, and the bodies that represent them at the local, state and international levels. Based on these unwavering principles, we make the following claims:

  • Water is not a commodity and must not be left to the whims of the market because no person or entity has the right to profit from it. Water must not, therefore, be commodified, privatized, traded or exported for commercial gain. Water must be excluded as "goods", a "service" and an "investment" in all international, regional and bilateral trade agreements.
  • Every human being has the right to clean water. We demand that governments of the world substancially increase the spending on clean water and sanitation for poor people who have little or no access to it. We affirm that by reducing current astronomical levels of military spending, clean and safe water can be provided for every living person on this planet. We maintain that debt cancellation is essential for water security in poor countries, and demand that privatization cease to be used as a condition for international lending. Furthermore, we believe that a tax on international currency speculation and a reduction and redirection of military spending, particularly by the worlds largest military powers could pay for water services around the world.
  • We proclaim that the key to the sustainable provision of water is the maintenance and protection of the ecological integrity of all ecosystems. We call for the adoption and implementation of a restoration agenda for the rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems. Further, we proclaim that a water-secure future is incompatible with industrial farming and the monopoly control of food and seeds by a small number of corporations. We support the goal of consider local self-reliance in food production. We also consider large-scale water development projects such as mega-dams to be ecologically and socially unsustainable. As such, a water secure future is dependent upon the acknowledgement, respect and protection of the rights on indigenous. Peasants and fisher peoples and their traditional knowledge. We insist that the voices of these groups and of women around the world be given a central place in water management issues, as these are the communities most affected by water insecurity.
  • Water, as a public trust and an inalienable right, must be controlled by the peoples and communities that rely on it for their lives and livelihoods. The management of water services must not only remain in public hands, but must be revitalized and strengthened to make community and worker participation central in order to democratize decision-making process and ensure transparency and accountability. This participation must be extended to the state, regional and international levels in all decisions pertaining to water resources, and should be governed by an international legal instrument binding all states and peoples to these principles. Furthermore, all water resources development projects must be based on respect for the rights f affected communities and must provide full and meaningful participation and decision-making.

Finally, we proclaim that the management and protection of the world's water resources must absolutely be based on the principles of justice, solidarity, reciprocity, equity, diversity and sustainability, because water is a human right."

Penang has been fortunate with water - a beautiful combination of sea and hills, and a generous hinterland, has provided our island with an abundance of water for the "Life giving and protecting", industrial and agricultural uses, and for recreational and scenic purposes.

We have however also privatized our water supply and thus will bring new uncertainties and challenges.

Our hope is that we will be guided by the civil society world water vision that "Water is life and not money!"

Let Penang lead in making this vision a reality.

Thank you.


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