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The fight to make water a human right

Cristy Clark |  09 May 2018

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', writes Dr Cristy Clark for Eureka Street.

Eight 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.

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.

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