Environment & energy, Food & water | Australia

28 September 2020

Unless the world’s governments can achieve justice in the provision of water, those who are most vulnerable will continue to suffer, Quentin Grafton writes.

In her 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, Kenyan political activist Wangari Maathai said that “entire communities also come to understand that while it is necessary to hold their governments accountable, it is equally important that in their own relationships with each other, they exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity, and trust.”

Many people think of justice as inherently linked with the legal system, but justice is a much bigger concept than law and order. Aristotle considered justice to be one of the cardinal virtues. To him, it was about ensuring each person received what is their due. In this sense, justice is not about an individual but it is about a community or a society, and what is done to ensure each person in a community gets their ‘fair share’.

Water justice starts first with ensuring that everyone receives what a virtuous person would consider to be equitable in terms of access to water. The flip side is water injustice that results in early death from water borne diarrheal diseases – diseases that, in India alone, kill around a quarter of million people every year.

Water injustice is everywhere. Even the most fundamental human right, to have access to drinking in quantities and of quality equal to their needs, is denied to billions. In the time of COVID-19, 40 per cent of households lack access to basic handwashing facilities. In 2017, there were 2.2 billion who lacked safely managed water and more than four billion lacked safely managed sanitation.

Many think water injustice is a poor country problem, yet 77 million Americans are served by drinking water systems with Safe Drinking Water Violations and whole communities, such as Flint, Michigan, have literally been poisoned with excess levels of lead in their drinking water.

More on this: Is Australia just draining taxpayer money in the Murray-Darling Basin?

In Detroit, thousands have had their water cut-off over the past few years. In the Navaho Nation in the south-western United States, many do not have access to running water. While in Philadelphia, some households have, for years, been forced to use plastic bags for sanitation and bottled water to wash their hands.

Those without water justice are the poor, the vulnerable, and also those who suffer from discrimination by virtue of their race, ethnicity, or politics. These are the same people who also suffer from a much higher fatality rate from COVID-19.

The need to deliver water justice is the driving force behind Sustainable Development Goal 6 to ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water sanitation for all’ by 2030.

Yet, the world is not on track to meet this goal because of inadequate investments to provide fresh water of sufficient quality in many low-income countries, and because much of the accessible water goes to those have either the resources or influence to obtain it. It’s the poor and vulnerable that suffer, and frequently they end up paying more per litre than the rich, who have access to piped water supplies.

It is worth remembering that the Roman Republic, more than 2,000 years ago, provided public latrines and public fountains for its citizens – a level of water service that many people still lack today. Acknowledging this need, a United Nations General Resolution in 2010 recognised ‘the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights’.

Yet water injustice remains, including in Australia, ‘the lucky country’ yet a nation with a water emergency. Some First Nations peoples in remote communities only have access to such poor quality drinking water that may be slowly killing them with chronic kidney disease.

In the past year in the Murray-Darling Basin there were many smaller communities, such as Wilcannia, that literally ‘ran out of water’. Downstream communities that had priority access to water under the law did not get the water they needed because upstream irrigators – in some cases illegally – have taken more than their fair share.

More on this: Declaring a water emergency

Some who have the most water have also tried to secure even more at the expense of others and the environment. In the words of Barkandji Elder, Badger Bates, the end result is that “In the last five years our elders are giving up and dying. Then our young people are committing suicide. And it’s hurting because of the river. How can I teach culture when they’re taking our beloved Barka [Darling River] away? There’s nothing to teach if there’s no river. The river is everything. It’s my life, my culture. You take the water away from us, we’ve got nothing.”

This is happening despite a Murray-Darling Basin Plan enacted in 2012 and the expenditure (so far) of more than six billion taxpayer dollars to ensure environmentally sustainable level of extractions in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Yet, stream flows in this Basin are much less than expected, even accounting for drought, perhaps by as much as two trillion litres of water per year. The most likely explanation is too much water consumption from irrigation, supported by billions of dollars in government grants for water infrastructure that increase, not decrease, water applications per hectare and reduce the return of water from farmers’ fields to streams and rivers.

The First Nations people of Australia who have lived on Country for time immemorial know all about water injustice and dispossession. In the Murray-Darling Basin of New South Wales, First Nations peoples account for about 10 per cent of the population yet they hold only 0.2 per cent of the available surface water.

Even this paltry amount has declined since 2009, and in 2020, some of Australia’s wealthiest people have asked the Western Australian government to allow them access to billions of litres of water from the Martuwarra (Fitzroy River), one of Australia’s (and the world’s) last pristine river systems.

In February 2017, 67 signatories to the Human Right to Water, including Pope Francis, came together to declare: “…all have a part to play in achieving societies of justice, solidarity and equality, committed to the care for our common home.” This vision explains why we need to come together, in partnership, to respond to water injustice and to promote both ‘voice’ and truth-telling in relation to water.

Water justice will only be delivered if the world can collectively secure basic water needs, better condition of watersheds, streams, rivers and aquifers, and better and fairer water planning, management and governance. On World Rivers Day 2020, let us make this vision a reality and truly commit to delivering water justice to everyone.

A version of this piece was first published on the Global Water Forum. You can read it here.

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