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The fight to make water a human right



In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council recognised the existence of a human right to water, guaranteeing access for everyone to 'sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses'.

McArthur River lead-zinc mineEight years on, it is past time that Australia incorporated this right into domestic law. Nonetheless, any push to do so will face an uphill battle, due to the awkward position occupied by human rights within our culture.

Surveys of the Australian population have found a significant gap between those who believe our human rights are sufficiently well protected, and those more disadvantaged groups who experience a very different reality. Our political class also has a history of ambivalence, or even hostility, to providing more comprehensive protection for human rights, and has been especially reluctant to legally recognise socioeconomic rights.

Numerous groups report falling through the gaps of our existing patchwork of human rights protections, particularly in relation to 'survival rights' such as housing, health and water. But many in the broader community remain unaware of their plight.

Events in the Hunter, in the Northern Territory mining town of Borroloola, and in Western Australia's remote Indigenous communities evidence these issues in relation to water, while reports of imminent ecosystem collapse in Victoria's central highlands raise the question of whether a larger section of the population will soon face the consequences of our long history of human rights complacency.

Radio 2UE is reporting that residents living near Dungog in the NSW Hunter region were recently asked by Hunter Water to sign a legal document saying they won't sue if they become ill after drinking their household water. Meanwhile, Indigenous residents of the Northern Territory mining town of Borroloola have been notified by the NT government that their drinking water was contaminated with lead, likely due to Glencore's nearby McArthur River lead-zinc mine (pictured).

Such issues would be familiar to many Indigenous communities living in remote areas of Western Australia, whose water supplies have been repeatedly contaminated with E.coli, Naegleria, nitrates and uranium.


"We can no longer afford to remain complacent about our human rights, especially those, like water, that depend on our environment."


These reports all raise human rights concerns, particularly around the right to safe drinking water and the right of non-discrimination in relation to access, but these events are rarely viewed through a human rights lens in Australia. Worse still, when such events affect Indigenous communities, there are reports of them being ignored altogether.

These cases reflect the existing dynamic under which certain sections of the community experience repeated breaches of their human rights, while the rest of us remain blasé — content with the status quo.

But, apparently, there are now threats to the water supply of our major cities. For example, ANU researchers have reported that the ecosystem of the mountain ash forests in Victoria's central highlands is at imminent risk of collapse. The implications of such a collapse for Melbourne's water supply would be disastrous, and yet the government continues to permit logging in this vital catchment area.

While the long term environmental and economic cost of such a risk should be argument enough to take serious action to protect Melbourne's water catchment, a legally protected human right to water would provide another angle for residents to protect their water supply from the threat of unsustainable logging. It would also provide protection for less powerful communities, such as those in the Hunter, in Borroloola, and WA's remote Indigenous communities.

Without legal protection, the rights of our most vulnerable communities are too easily sacrificed to vested interests. Ideally, the broader community would have been alert to these human rights issues long before now, but perhaps these new threats to urban centres will serve as a wakeup call.

We can no longer afford to remain complacent about our human rights — especially those, like water, that depend on our environment.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, water, human rights



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Existing comments

Thank you Christy. This topic is dear to me. Breathable air, drinkable water, is my mantra. The fact that we know more about Flint than we do about Dungog, the Garawu, & others, speaks to the ease with which we can take on issues which do not impact on us directly more easily than the ones under our noses. Keep telling us.

Bev henwood | 04 May 2018  

The world being finite and resources limited, access to a resource has to be rationed because different people require different types of access to the one item. For one, water is to be drunk; for another, it is the immediate necessity for producing income. Politics is the process of sharing resources according to practicalities. The practicalities remain unknown until tested by politics, of which academic and legal discussion is a form. Laws are usually framed after politics has identified the practicalities. Until then, a law can’t know what to impose and what it can’t know to impose can’t possibly be a human right. In any case, until the law is framed – and the declaration of what is a right is a law - judges and lawyers have nothing with which to conciliate and arbitrate. Of more significance is the fact that pre-emptively declaring a right is tyranny. When all that the aficionado of solving access issues by coding something as a static human right has is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail. But it is politics, the Joneses, who, case by case, decide whether scarcity renders access a static right or a contingent privilege.

Roy Chen Yee | 07 May 2018  

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