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On World Water Day: Let’s work for people, not corporations

Twenty three years ago, in 1993, the first annual World Water Day was an occasion to draw attention to water related challenges around the globe.  It will be observed again tomorrow, with a focus on sustainable water governance. We join with others to celebrate the many successes in the intervening two decades.

The number of people with access to drinking water and sanitation has increased manifold.  In many communities people have met their water needs through successful watershed development and rainwater harvesting efforts. At the same time, around the world communities are asserting that water is a fundamental human right. They are pushing back attempts to privatize their water supply and sanitation services.

In countries such as France, where privatization has been the norm in the past, and elsewhere around the world, we see an increasing trend towards the re-municipalization of water supply and sanitation services. At times change has come through directly engaging in a participatory democracy, including taking to the street and to the ballot, as we have seen both in New Delhi and in Greece. The newly elected government in the state of New Delhi had free water as part of their campaign platform. In Greece, likely in response to the promise of social policies that Syriza has made to people, the public water company Thessaloniki has introduced social tariffs that allow poor people to receive about 12.5 cubic meter of free water per month.

We have also had some institutional initiatives that address unsustainable water consumption patterns. San Francisco recently passed an ordinance to go bottle-water free. The recently proposed dietary guidelines (USDA/ USDHHS), which suggest substantial reduction in the consumption of red meat, is a less obvious example: according to water footprint studies, red meat has the highest water foot print per calorie, close to ten times as pulses, the primary source for vegetable based protein. (However this assertion needs unpacking: meat sourced from Integrated agro-pastoral systems are very different from that sourced from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), that create substantial demand for animal feed production, the component of the livestock cycle that constitutes the bulk of the water footprint.)

In fact, the local and healthy food movement has achieved much over the last decade to protect water resources. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the move towards earth friendly farming practices (agroecological, natural or organic) and healthy food habits have reduced the water pollution that arises from agrochemical use, and have promoted water-conserving agricultural practices.

But many opportunities remain.  Consider the proposed new diet guidelines from the U.S. government.  As the New York Times notes, the government’s  “new focus on the environment would mean asking people to choose more fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and other plant-based foods — possibly at the expense of meat.” If adopted, these guidelines can help nudge America not only towards a healthier diet, but also help conserve our water and other resources, especially relevant at a time of increasingly frequent seasonal water shortages and or even droughts, as New York times noted in another article earlier this month.

Currently, the vertically integrated meat industry sits close to the epicenter of water crisis, food insecurity and climate change in the U.S. If appropriate changes are introduced to the sector, they have the potential to have the single most important impact on food and nutrition security and water quality especially in the U.S. and even globally. Yet, as we have pointed out, a powerful lobby is planning an all-out offensive in Congress to prevent USDA and HHS from adopting these recommendations as the national guidelines.

A similarly powerful lobby also resists, often in the name of farmers, an important effort to minimize water pollution from agricultural runoff (from the use of agrochemicals in our food system even when they are harmful for farm workers and also pollute our waters).

These challenges become especially relevant given that one important thematic area for the UN World Water Day in 2015 is how to integrate water and agriculture into a post 2015 sustainable development agenda.  We already know many of the appropriate solutions. Whether we take the right path depends on our political will, and on our ability to make tough choices as a society. Thus, as we celebrate this World Water Day in the United States, we stand with our fellow citizens, asking our elected representatives to do the right thing. We ask President Obama to not to give in to the pressures of the meat industry, nor to that of the Farm Bureau!

Globally, we stand in solidarity with a broad coalition of environmental, campesino/a, religious and labor organizations in El Salvador that have joined together to promote a Constitutional Amendment (Article 69) that that would define both water and food as human rights to be protected in El Salvador. 

We also stand in solidarity with Europeans as they gather in Brussels this Monday the 23rd March, 2015 to call on the European Commission to implement the human right to water into EU law, to increase EC efforts to achieve universal access to water, to keep water out of all trade agreements and to remind the European Commission that they should work for their citizens, not for corporations.  The European Citizens’ Initiative, which gathered close to 2 million signatures to move a right to water agenda in the European commission, remains an inspiration.  In the United States progressive movements should consider a similar citizens initiative that demands that elected representatives be accountable to and work for people, and not for the corporations. 

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