Water: A Human Right

Intel Sets the Pace

The TakeAway: Intel Affirmed Water as a Human Right Before the UN; Will Other Companies Follow Suit?

Water is the driving force of all nature, said Leonardo da Vinci.  Apparently, the United Nations agrees.  On Wednesday, in a nonbinding measure submitted by Bolivia, the UN General Assembly declared access to clean water and sanitation a human right.  After 15 years of debating the issue, 122 nations voted on a compromise, while the United States abstained.  So did Britain, Canada, Australia, and 37 other nations, on the grounds that no such right exists in international law.  In the wake of this news, Kyle Cahill of Oxfam America stated, the “private sector needs to follow.”  Actually, at least one company has already taken the lead: in March, Intel established a water policy, based on its commitment to conservation and human rights.   The question now is not if, but when other companies will take up Intel’s example.

For context, the UN estimates that:

  • each person needs 20-50 litres of safe freshwater a day for drinking, cooking, and cleaning;
  • each year 894 million people live without clean water—that’s one in six people, worldwide;
  • 2.5 billion – that’s right, billion – live without proper sanitation; and
  • every 20 seconds, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation—that’s 1.5 million preventable deaths each year.

“It was a great honour to be present as the UN General Assembly took this historic step forward in the struggle for a just world,” said Maude Barlow, Canada’s leading water activist and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project.  “It is sad however, that Canada chose not to participate in this important moment in history.”

“The corporate world, as with everybody, has to start recognizing the water crisis,” Barlow said in an interview with Murninghan Post Editor Bill Baue at the May 2010 Ceres Conference.  “The corporate world has to get the part they’re playing in the pollution of water, in the overuse of water, in the abuse of water, and the part they have to play in cleaning up their act . . . So it’s really important when the private sector starts to use that language” in Intel’s water policy.

Intel’s water policy set precedent in affirming the human right to water.  “Like most manufacturing processes, water is a key requirement for making semiconductors,” said Todd Brady, Intel’s Global Environmental Manager.  “We recognized the changing landscape and rising expectations for companies on this topic – from organizations looking at water as being a human right, to demands from investors for improved reporting and transparency on water use.”

The policy resulted from a shareowner resolution filed by NorthStar Asset Management and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC).

“This agreement moves beyond the vague promises of water conservation that many corporations purport,” said NorthStar CEO Julie Goodridge. “It fully commits the company to respecting the human right to sufficient clean water, as well as individuals’ rights to be involved in the development of processes that extract water from their communities.”

Creating this policy “was simply the smart and the right thing to do,” concluded Intel’s Brady.

One company taking new steps is significant.   The key question is whether other companies — and industrialized country governments such as the US and Canada — will take notice and act in ways that truly bend international behavior in vital new directions.

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