UN General Assembly declares access to safe, clean drinking water and sanitation essential

Posted July 29, 2010

On July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly declared that "the right to drinking water and sanitation was essential for the full enjoyment of life."

The resolution was introduced by Bolivia, and was co-sponsored by 39 countries.1 There were 122 states in favor, 0 opposed and 41 abstentions.

This declaration by the general assembly is an important step towards the recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and will strengthen the rights already established in General Comment 15 on the right to water. General Comment 15 is an authoritative interpretation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by 160 States.

Interpreting the Covenant, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights clarified (in 2002) that the use of the word “including”2 indicates that the right to an adequate standard of living is not limited to food, clothing and housing. It indicated that the right to water is also included within the right to an adequate standard of living since water is fundamental for survival. Since 2002, when the general comment was adopted, a large number of states have accepted the view elaborated in General Comment 15 that the right to water is legally binding. However, a few countries led by the United States have so far prevented the recognition of right to water in UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, which operate by consensus.3

Yesterday's unanimous declaration by the UN General Assembly will give a boost to those governments that have made an effort to recognize water as a basic right, and to other multilateral efforts to promote the  realization of right to water and sanitation.

This is indeed a huge step forward.

However there is much more to be done. The first step, of course, is to make the right to drinking water and sanitation a reality. This is particularly true for rural areas where 84 percent of water poor live.4 While the resource requirements for meeting the drinking water needs of 884 million people and sanitation related water needs of 2.6 billion people are well within the collective means of our 21st-century world, water remains a mirage for the water-poor. A commitment to help realize the right to water on the part of the rich governments of the world could help save the lives of 1.5 million children under age five who would otherwise die from water-related illnesses. To help meet Millennium Development Goals on water (to halve the number of water poor by 2015) poorer countries need a mere $18.4 billion annually, which they are hard pressed to raise. Yet we have seen that bank bail-outs of much higher magnitude come about easily.5

Equally important is recognizing that the realization of several other rights, such as right to food and right to livelihood, is contingent on reliable access to water. This is especially true in the case of the large number of rural people who are directly dependent on land-based activities such as agriculture, animal grazing and other related activities for meeting their food needs. Climate change is already impacting and will continue to impact these peoples’ food security. Ensuring clean water to help them realize their right to livelihood is of utmost importance.

At the moment, it is commendable that the declaration acknowledges "the importance of equitable, safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as an integral component of the realization of all human rights."

A universal recognition that extends this by acknowledging "the importance of equitable, clean water as an integral component towards the realization of all human rights, especially right to food, and right to livelihood" would be of additional help, especially in the changed context of climate crisis.

1. Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, The Plurinational State of Bolivia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Eritrea, Fiji, Georgia, Guinea, Haiti, Madagascar, Maldives, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Paraguay, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Seychelles, The Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tuvalu, Uruguay, Vanuatu, The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and Yemen 

2. In Article 11 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States parties “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing...”

3. Afshaq Khan, e-mail communication, July 2010.

4. World Bank: Global Monitoring Report 2010, The MDGs after the Crisis, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTGLOMONREP2010/Resources/6911301-1271698910928/GMR2010WEB.pdf

5. http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/IRIN/767d200266c1ab5956e7148ad2f52b03.htm

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China's pollution census, manure and biogas

Posted July 19, 2010

In February of this year, the Chinese government released results of the first national pollution census (全国污染源普查). The most startling finding of this nearly three-year, 737 million RMB investigation was that agriculture is a bigger source of water pollution in China than industry. Because agriculture had never before been included in official pollution measures, the finding that farming is responsible for 44 percent of chemical oxygen demand (COD—the main measure of organic compounds in water), 67 percent of phosphorus discharges and 57 percent of nitrogen discharges was big news. The New York Times and The Guardian published articles on the Chinese pollution census.

In addition to fertilizer-, pesticide- and herbicide-containing runoff from crop fields, the census found that manure from livestock and poultry farms is a major source of agricultural pollution. An article this week in the China Daily further details animal waste problems, citing incidents of blue-green algae outbreaks in lakes and waterways because of excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen fromIMG_5521

livestock farms. The photo to the right is an example of this phenomenon near a commercial pig farm I visited in Sichuan Province. Given the lack of effective water treatment methods and facilities, combined with the ever-increasing scale of livestock production, this is indeed a serious problem for China to address.

In response to the census, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) is promoting biogas digesters as a possible solution to the current “manure problem.” The ministry is currently executing and administering a $66.08 million (USD) loan from the Asian Development Bank to expand the use of biogas technologies. By 2020, plans are to construct an additional 80 million household methane digesters and 10,000 large-scale biogas plants. These projects build on technologies that have been used in China for decades. (Here is a report by Professor Li Kangmin and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho that gives a brief history of biogas use in China, dating from the late nineteenth century.)

The concern is scale. According to a water expert at the Asian Development Bank, presently less than 1 percent of the 4.2 million large-scale pig, cattle and poultry farms use biogas digesters to process manure. As these commercial farms follow the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) model by packing more and more animals into smaller and smaller spaces and continue to take an increasing share of production and markets, surely they are the operations to watch—and to regulate. But to date, biogas digester projects have focused on small-scale production. The MOA estimates that 35 million of the 140 million rural households were using digesters at the end of 2008. While digesters can bring certain benefits to rural communities, particularly production of cooking gas and nutrient-rich fertilizer, these small-scale farms are not the ones contributing most to the manure-in-water problem.

The real challenge for addressing manure-based water pollution comes from the rivers of waste running out of commercial livestock farms and directly into bodies of water. If biogas digesters are to be the chosen path to correct this ill, perhaps there should be a mandate that all new CAFOs (and there are new ones coming into production all the time) must install digesters from the beginning. At the same time, the existing 99 percent of commercial farms that don’t already use them should be urged to do so.

Mindi Schneider is blogging from China. She is a native Midwesterner currently living in China and working on her PhD in Development Sociology at Cornell.

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Environmental justice, science leaders urge action linking climate and public health

Posted July 1, 2010

In a letter sent to Congress and the Obama administration last month, leading voices in environmental justice, science and academics asked that: “1) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) should not be overturned or diminished; and 2) climate change policy should address the emissions of greenhouse gas co-pollutants, as well as the emissions of greenhouse gases themselves.”

The same facilities and vehicles that emit greenhouse gases also emit co-pollutants that lead to high rates of asthma and other serious public health concerns. In addition to the public health impacts associated with climate change itself, co-pollutants from coal plants and other fossil fuel sources disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color as these communities are largely located where fossil fuel facilities are located and where urban vehicle emissions are concentrated. This unique partnership of leading environmental justice activists, policy analysts, scientists and academics is the first of its kind.

While Congress has rejected initial attempts to undermine the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for public health reasons, additional attempts to challenge EPA’s authority are expected. Shalini Gupta, director of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP, was among the 18 leaders who signed onto the letter. To find out more, read the press release and full letter.

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Climate change and the World Cup

Posted June 22, 2010

To be in Brazil during the World Cup of futbol (soccer) is to see both a massive outpouring of national pride and mass marketing of the very first order. Museums will change their opening hours and churches will change the times they offer mass on any day that Brazil plays. Brazil will host the World Cup 2014. The government is already planning for ways to sweep the streets of beggars and hide the shanty towns (favelas) behind walls, not so they won’t be seen but so the favelas and beggar residents cannot interfere with the tourism and commerce of the tournament.

I am here to talk with NGOs about U.S. climate change policy and more specifically the U.S. financial reform legislation that will have much to do with how carbon emissions are traded in commodity futures markets if and when they are established. Given the current diplomatic stalemate in climate change negotiations, it would be idle to suggest that countries must compete more fiercely to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than they compete to win the World Cup. Certainly the stakes of losing the GHG Games are immeasurably higher than the national disappointment or even disgust when its team is ousted but where is that commercial GHG hook that will have “Beat Climate Change!” T-shirts outselling "Go Brazil" T-shirts?

Granted, the U.S. climate change story is not a happy one or one easy sell to Brazilian groups. Unhappily I explain that our most immediate challenge is not the members of the U.S. Congress who don’t believe that climate change is happening or that it is not serious enough to warrant a massive change in U.S. technology and investment policy. Our most immediate problems are the environmental organizations who believe that carbon markets will induce investment decisions to reduce GHGs.

Earlier this month, IATP published a critique of an International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) proposal that would finance GHG reductions by selling bonds to developing countries. The bond terms would be defined and administered by a new International Green Bond Board that would displace the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. The collateral for bond repayment would be developing country carbon credits that would be sold and resold in U.S. and EU markets. When I explained that several U.S. environmental organizations worked closely with IETA the Brazilian NGOs weren’t as shocked as I had been when I listened to IETA and the big enviros sing the same tune in Copenhagen.

They said that Brazilian conservation organizations, desperate for funds to fight the destruction of the Amazon by agribusiness, forestry and mining firms, had become believers that selling carbon offset credits to U.S. and EU businesses would stop the destruction of the Amazon. Indeed, as I had read in No Rain in the Amazon, some of the former deforesters were planting fast-growing eucalyptus trees to claim carbon offset credits from a space that once had been home to an immense wealth of biodiversity and climate stabilization. U.S. environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), had sold Brazilian conservation groups on carbon markets in such market conditions.

If Wall Street and other financial centers remain fundamentally unreformed, they will create extreme price volatility in carbon markets, as surely as they did in agricultural and energy markets in 2006–2008. IETA has argued that there should be no limits on the number of carbon derivatives, based on the value of the carbon credits, that some draft U.S. legislation proposes to give away for free to the biggest polluters. Furthermore, IETA opposes any attempt to reduce unregulated trading in the over-the-counter markets.

IATP, with the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC) and Americans for Financial Reform (AFR), is fighting to put binding limits on derivatives trading and allow OTC trading only for commodity traders, such as municipal power companies, for whom the greater cost of trading on public and regulated exchanges impedes their ability to provide energy to all consumers. As Wall Street rains campaign contributions on New Democrats to help the Republican Party defeat reform, we fear that if real reform is defeated, the next bill to be bought and paid for by industry will be climate change legislation. Then the only thing for which we will be able to cheer is the World Cup—if it isn’t disrupted by drought, flash floods and more frequent and violent weather.

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The new climate debt

Posted June 14, 2010

As combined economic entities, members of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) exceed the size of most governments. So, when IETA made a new financing proposal just prior to last week's UN global climate talks in Bonn, attention was paid.

IETA's 170 transnational financial, law, energy and manufacturing firms are aggressively pushing for a global system for trading carbon emission credits and their financial derivatives. Their latest proposal, “green sectoral bonds,” are being sold as the only option for developing countries to access financing for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Like conventional bonds, the green sectoral bonds would allow developing countries to borrow money from private investors to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets—the principle to be paid back with interest over time. The proposal represents a major shift in climate finance discussions.

As IATP's Steve Suppan writes in a new analysis of the IETA proposal, “If implemented, the proposal would transform climate finance from a public fiduciary duty primarily funded by developed countries to a new source of developing country debt to private creditors and of profits for IETA members.”

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Anna Lappé on TakePart commmencement speaker dream team

Posted June 7, 2010

Post written by Mark Muller, originally published on the Food and Society Fellows Fresh Ideas blog.

I've spent too much time determining who would be on my basketball
dream team, but haven't given enough thought to who are my top picks
for commencement speakers. Thankfully, TakePart has done the hard work
and announced it's Commencement Speaker Dream Team. Coming in at #4 is AnnaLappé!

"Anna Lappé, renowned author and founding principal of The Small Planet Institute, is a
terrific role model for graduates who are looking to get involved in the
food movement. Anna is committed to finding sustainable,
climate-friendly solutions to our industrial food system, particularly
in her latest book Diet
for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What
You Can Do about It

And it won't be a commencement speech, but those of you in the
vicinity of the Twin Cities have an opportunity to hear Anna, as well
as her renowned mother Francis Moore Lappé, speak in Minneapolis on
June 16.  Billed as "From Small Planet to Hot Planet"
and moderated by Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy President
Jim Harkness, the event features a discussion between the Lappés on the
challenges of transforming the food system and the opportunities for intergenerational collaboration.

Join us for this exciting opportunity!

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Agriculture's largest threat

Posted May 7, 2010

William Neuman and Andrew Pollack of the New York Times dug deeper earlier this week into the growing story of Roundup-resistant weeds and the chaos this is causing within the agriculture community. The Times story quotes Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts as saying, "It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen." And Tennessee farmer Eddie Anderson says, "We're back to where we were 20 years ago. We're trying to find out what works."

Why is growing resistance to Roundup in weeds such a big deal? Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops are one of the linchpins of conventional agriculture. Roundup Ready crops allow farmers to douse their crop with Roundup to kill the weeds, while the crop survives. Currently, more than 80 percent of corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, and most are Roundup Ready.

As we wrote last month, the Natonal Research Council's assessment on the impact of GE crops on farmers pointed to nine species of weeds that have been identified in the U.S. as being resistant to Roundup. As Roundup loses its effectiveness, other—more toxic—herbicides will likely take its place.

But the Times story also points out how the loss of Roundup affects no-till farming, at least the way corn farmers practice it. No-till has been touted as more environmentally friendly by curbing erosion and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. It also has been hyped as an important part of a prospective carbon market. By not tilling, carbon is sequestering in the soil, and hence could become an additional income stream for farmers as part of a carbon-offset system. But as the Times points out, with the decline in Roundup's effectiveness, commodity crop no-till may no longer be practical.

What might make more sense? A new study by researchers out of Iowa State found that farmers using a two-crop rotation (corn and soybeans) could cut their fossil fuel use in half by switching to a four-crop rotation (adding oats and alfalfa)—and they could make the same amount of money.

The emerging challenges of Roundup-resistant weeds point out once again why climate change policy needs to get it right on agriculture.

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Water and the climate connections

Posted April 23, 2010

Last week, the Feria del Agua—a water festival and fair—marked the 10th anniversary of the water wars that thwarted attempts to privatize water services in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Celebrations were kicked off April 15 with a parade from downtown Cochabamba to the Complejo Fabril (home of the Cochabamba Federation of Workers).

Nationally, the water wars not only paved the way for blocking privatization attempts of other natural resources in Bolivia, but also helped change the balance of power there, leading to the successful election of its first indigenous president. Globally, the Bolivian water wars called attention to attempts to privatize water in Asia, Africa and elsewhere in Latin America. In their wake, it became increasingly acceptable to claim water as a basic right.

In 2001, IATP used the Bolivian water privatization case study to successfully persuade the UN office of the Special Rapporteur—who was conducting a detailed study towards the formulation the U.N. General Comment 15 on right to water—to remove overt references to privatization as a strategy for ensuring the water supply and sanitation in realizing the right to water. IATP also made the case that the General Comment must include water for farming and other subsistence livelihood practices to help establish the right to adequate food as a necessary component of realizing the right to water.

The struggle for the right to water continues even now in Bolivia. As several bloggers from the international water fair have pointed out, the gains of the water war have yet to reach la zona su—a wide swath of poor communities at the southern edge of the city that are highly organized and militant—some of the principal protagonists of the struggle in 2000 that led to the expulsion of the multinational Bechtel. Hence the need for small, autonomous water committees that continue to serve the needs of the local population. La Feria del Agua was thus not only a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the water wars, but also a  public event celebrating the work of these water committees.

Earlier this week, thousands more arrived in Cochabamba to participate in the People's Conference on Climate Change, at the invitation of Bolivian President Evo Morales and civil society groups. In an attempt to draw attention to the fact that water is in the eye of the climate storm, one of the days at the Feria was celebrated as a climate and water day. It was planned as a day to question the political processes that promote market-based solutions as an answer to the water and climate crises, and to advance alternatives. IATP, along with On the Commons and several other groups from around the world that work on water justice issues, came together to develop a fact sheet, “Water and Climate Change: What’s the connection?” and a draft declaration “On the Connection between Water and Climate Justice: Reviving a healthy climate through commons-based water management practices.” These were presented at the Feria. The purpose was to reach out to other constituencies and to show that their struggle is our struggle too—since water permeates climate, forests, agriculture and life itself.

As a participant at the climate forum pointed out to Jeff Conant (read him at Climate Connections), “The most important outcome of this meeting would be a stronger people’s movement on the climate crisis. It’s not about documents, it’s not about policy, it’s about standing up together against the climate criminals.” It is also about showing the world that there is an alternative.

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Walking a new path on climate change

Posted April 23, 2010

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochabamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Climate Conference concluded today with a dialogue between social movements and governments. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca described the process leading up to the meeting and the central role of indigenous people in the conference and on these issues, as guardians of the balance among peoples and between people and Mother Earth.

He also reported on the overwhelming participation in the conference. More than 35,000 people from 142 countries attended the meetings, 19,000 of them from outside of Bolivia. Some 47 governments were represented.

People from Australia, Malaysia, the United States and Bolivia reported back on the recommendations from the 17 working groups. They included proposals for a global referendum on climate change and the establishment of an international climate court. They insisted on the Kyoto Protocol as the only binding instrument to reduce global warming, and called on governments to review the failure of carbon markets. They held out agro-ecology and small-scale farming as the best way to feed the world while cooling the planet. The complete recommendations will be available on the conference website by April 26.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, as well as the vice presidents of Cuba and Ecuador, responded with endorsements of the proposals. President Morales offered to facilitate sending the recommendations directly to the UN Secretary General, as well as inserting them in the negotiating process at the UNFCCC.

Of course, not all of these proposals fit within the UNFCCC process, but that really isn’t the point. People from around the world came together in Bolivia to confront the impending climate catastrophe. Action is needed at all levels—local, national and international. The World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was an exhilarating step along the way.

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

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Bolivia climate conference opens with call for food sovereignty

Posted April 21, 2010

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochabamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Conference opened today with a series of speeches by delegations from around the world. Each stressed the urgency of going beyond addressing the symptoms of global warming to taking actions to achieve deeper systems change.

A representative of La Via Campesina spoke on behalf of Latin America, emphasizing food sovereignty as a central solution to climate change. Throughout the day, in different panels and workshops, Via Campesina members stressed locally produced foods and sustainable agriculture grown by small-scale farmers as essential to cooling the planet while reducing hunger and strengthening rural livelihoods.

The opening events concluded with a rousing speech by President Evo Morales. He began with a concise critique of the Copenhagen Accord and the need for all countries to re-commit to the Kyoto Protocol process. However, he echoed the concerns raised by other delegations that market-based solutions will not solve the problems they helped to create.

Then, perhaps straying a bit from his prepared speech, he spoke about the importance of local foods. Too often, he said, multinational corporations promote genetically engineered crops and other technological solutions when the answers are really closer to home. During the food price crisis, wheat became very expensive, and many Bolivians returned to eating quinoa—a local crop that had been neglected for years. Now, he said, the FAO has released a report saying that quinoa is one of the most nutritious grains in the world. He pointed to his own full head of hair and joked that perhaps one reason so many European men are bald is that they eat too many genetically engineered, hormone-laced foods, instead of nutritious, locally grown foods.

It’s hard to talk about climate change without looking at inequality, both within and among nations. And there are no easy answers to either of them. But it just might be that the creative ideas and alliances formed at this conference help us to move a few steps towards fresh new solutions to both.

Evo Morales

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

» Read the full post