The United Nations’ new “senior advisor on water”—a Canadian woman named Maude Barlow—says everybody has a right to water…
What that means, I guess, is that I have a right to take a bucket down to Whiskey Creek—a mile away—and carry home enough water to drink (after I boiling it to kill any bacteria left in the stream by the local deer and raccoons). If Whiskey Creek should dry up in a drought, I’d have the right to go even further, to the Shenandoah River, for my God-given water, or perhaps even to the Chesapeake Bay.
That’s better than the old days, when my village would have had to fight other villages for the right to water holes or local streams, but it’s not much comfort to my wife. She’s gotten used to having clean, safe water come out of the tap in the kitchen and bath.
On the other hand, she once lived in Ethiopia, and volunteered in a clinic where poor mothers would walk days with kids who’d been sickened by polluted water. The clinic would cure the kids and send them home—only to have the same women back a few weeks later, their kids made sick again by the same polluted water. And, often the kids don’t survive to make the journey back.
God-given or not, the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century reports that one billion of the world’s poorest people totally lack access to safe drinking water. That’s a dreadful statement about a mostly-affluent world. Some international organizations are laboring to help villagers understand that putting their excrement into the rivers and rice paddies spreads diseases—for which they can’t afford treatment. The newly-enlightened villagers then dig their own latrines, make sure they’re kept covered, and radically reduce their own disease rates. Local education and local action must be part of God’s work.
The World Bank has been working with private water companies, who are in the business of creating reservoirs, laying water pipe and chlorinating the water for safety. Then they charge fees for the service. But Maude Barlow hates anyone who charges people for water. “No one should be denied access because they can’t pay,” she proclaims as her first water principle. That’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t buy a pump for the village well or install running water in the school kitchen.
Maude’s second principle is that “water is maintained by the public sector, so it’s like a tax, not a fee.” Pardon me, but somebody has to invest money in storing the water, cleaning it up, and delivering it to homes and businesses. That investment could come from the government—if the government is willing and responsible. Or roughly the same capital could be ponied up by a private company if the government is incompetent or unresponsive—and too many are both. Tax or fee, somebody has to put up the capital.
I certainly hope that all of the world’s people will soon get access to clean water, but it’s hard to understand how declaring it’s a “right” matters very much to the women and children walking a mile to get water that could kill them.
DENNIS T. AVERY is an environmental economist. He is a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years”.