Published: 21/03/2005

The United Nations General Assembly has officially designated the period 2005-2015 as the International Decade for Action “Water for Life”. The action decade begins on March 22, World Water Day. As part of the Millennium Development goals, the UN has set a target date of 2015 for reducing by half the proportion of the world’s people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The problem is enormous. UN statistics tell us that some 1.3 billion people currently lack access to clean water, while nearly twice as many have no access to sanitation and sewage. A large number of those without access to drinking water and sanitation are agricultural workers. Most difficult of all is the situation of women workers, who generally bear the responsibility of securing water for their families. Those who help to feed the world but whose fundamental rights are routinely, often brutally violated are also denied the right to one of life’s essential sources. Thirst, dehydration, heightened exposure and vulnerability to waterborne diseases and chemical hazards (because there is no water to wash with after applying toxic chemicals) are not the only consequences of this denial of rights. Water scarcity means growing food insecurity – in the first instance for all those who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

One official from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has observed that “The international debate on water problems tends to overlook the important role of agriculture, the biggest water user.” We can add to this the fact that the “debate on water” has, to date, excluded the world’s 450 million agricultural workers, who experience the lack of access to adequate fresh water as a crisis of their jobs, their health and their lives. Their crisis is the crisis of the world food system.

For the transnational water corporations, on the other hand, water scarcity “represents an extremely attractive money-making opportunity”, as Eurobusiness magazine called it in an article entitled “Europe’s liquid gold.” Nearly half a billion people now depend on private water corporations – a ten-fold increase accomplished over the space of a mere ten years. The 1990’s were the corporate action decade, when (mostly poor) countries were swindled or coerced into surrendering their water. Corporate appetites are not limited to municipal water, but ultimately extend to agriculture, which consumes nearly three-quarters of all fresh water and is the biggest potential market for private water providers.

Constraining the activities of global water corporations isn’t on the official agenda for World Water Day 2005. Nor is realizing the specific rights of agricultural workers, including the right to clean drinking water as set out most recently in the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 184 on Safety and Health in Agriculture. The IUF will therefore mark World Water Day by encouraging its affiliates around the world to continue pressing their governments to ratify and implement without delay ILO Convention 184. And by congratulating the citizens of Uruguay for organizing and winning by a large majority a referendum for a constitutional amendment which guarantees access to water and sanitation as a fundamental human right to be provided by the state as a public service. The newly installed government will have as one of its tasks the implementation of this constitutional reform. The labour movement in Uruguay played a key role in mobilizing support for this historic achievement. Unions around the world can and should build on the Uruguayan experience.

The next meeting of the IUF Agricultural Workers Trade Group Board, scheduled to take place in West Bengal, India in October, will have a special focus on water, agriculture, unions and rural communities. Union action to protect the Acuifero Guarani, the world’s largest freshwater reservoir located between Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil now threatened with World Bank-promoted privatization, will be one of the items for discussion.

The IUF paper The GATS Threat to Food and Agriculture  looks at the impact of GATS-driven water privatization and commercialization on agriculture and agricultural workers.