Right to water: From peoples’ rights to rivers’ rights

Akgun Ilhan at International Rivers Conference DamocracyThe world has been facing a severe water crisis. One out three people in the world does not have enough water for meeting his/her basic needs such as drinking and cleaning. Eighty percent of the diseases on our planes is related to use of dirty water. What is even more alarming is that with global climate change, access to water has become even more limited. Water crisis is growing.

States’ and corporate powers’ common response to the crisis has been damming more and more rivers, instead of protecting them. In the eyes of the states, rivers are the key to national development because water is not only vital for agricultral production, but also the raw material of energy (hydropower). Corporate powers see rivers as economic good with low demand elasticity and costs. This makes water business quite a profitable one. A result of this dominant view is that at least sixty percent of the world’s rivers today are partially or totally dammed by large dams (dam wall taller than 15 m or water capacity larger than 3 million m3). These hydraulic infrastuctures have had devastating impacts on both humans and nature. Around 50 million people had to migrate due to dam constructions. Since 1970s, more than half of the river basin species went extinct. All around the world there has been great loss in natural-cultural heritage.

Damming of skyrocketing number of rivers would not be possible without commercialization and privatization of water. Although started in the 1980s in the world, water privatization became already dominant by the beginning of 2000s. Privatization within the last three decades has created many problems, some of which are: 1) water has become an economic commodity rather a human right, 2) water has become more expensive while its quality has dropped down; 3) water services have become profit driven rather than human-centred; 4) water consumption is promoted rather than water conservation; 5) private companies have become richer from commons (water) while some economically disadvantaged people and locals, such as the river basin communities, have become poorer; and 6) water multi-nationals have taken risks whose price are often paid by public, other living beings and future generations.

It is obvious that economy-centred remedies of the states and corporations have brought much more social-ecological injustice than sound solutions to water crisis. Such injustice has created its counter social movements such as the Narmada Water Dispute (India), Cochabamba Water Wars (Bolivia) and New Water Culture movement (Spain). In these movements and many more, people look for ways to develop sound solutions based on water justice to solve the water crisis. The concept of ‘right to water’ takes to the stage, simply due to violation of rights. In this global movement, people develop ways to build a new understanding of water. This new understanding refuses to see water as an economic good whose control is under the hands of the states and corporations. Water is seen as a fundamental right to life for both humans and other living beings. Actors of the global water right movement come together with rural communities, such as the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and the Tigris, whose bonds with nature are still alive. The more they come together, the better they understand that protecting rivers means protecting life. It has been increasingly understood that the protecting the rights of people is no different than rivers’ rights. This new understanding portrays water as a living-being who has the right to flow freely and give life.

Rivers should be alive, if we want to stay alive. Therefore, rivers should flow, if we want to proceed. Just like world’s rivers crossing the borders of states and reaching the sea, a new understanding of water and well-being needs to flow and meet the other minds. Rivers’ rights are peoples’ rights.

Akgun Ilhan, Batmanın Sesi, 18 June 2013

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