Water, human rights and government failure

by David Zetland

Water, human rights and government failure

I wrote a paper on a human right to water several years ago,* in which I made the point (using data!) that laws supporting a human right to water are unlikely to work in countries where the rule of law is weak.**
But what about places where the rule of law means something? What about in California, where Governor Brown just signed AB 685 into law? AB 685 was drafted into law as a “do something” response to the problems to the poor quality water that communities in the southern Central Valley were facing. These communities — mostly poor, mostly migrant — are in the middle of California’s “industrial ag” belt, and their groundwater was contaminated by runoff/seepage from cowshit generated at large-scale dairies (Happy cows! California #1!) and from excess pesticide/fertilizer applied at big farms.***
 
Although AB 685 sounds good, it actually does nothing concrete. It merely espouses a nice idea that will only be implemented if convenient. Here, in fact, is the entire addition to the State’s water code [pdf]:

SECTION 1. Section 106.3 is added to the Water Code, to read:
106.3. (a) It is hereby declared to be the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.
(b) All relevant state agencies, including the department, the state board, and the State Department of Public Health, shall consider this state policy when revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria when those policies, regulations, and criteria are pertinent to the uses of water described in this section.
(c) This section does not expand any obligation of the state to provide water or to require the expenditure of additional resources to develop water infrastructure beyond the obligations that may exist pursuant to subdivision (b).
(d) This section shall not apply to water supplies for new development.
(e) The implementation of this section shall not infringe on the rights or responsibilities of any public water system.

Although sections (a) and (b) sound good, sections (c-e) seem to create giant loopholes (I still cannot understand what “beyond the obligations that may exist pursuant to subdivision (b)” means).
So, I see this bill as a non-solution to a problem that needs to be addressed by:

  • Reducing pollution from agriculture; and
  • Requiring farmers whose pollution has damaged groundwater to pay for substitute water supplies to communities with “impaired” water supplies or pay for the relocation of the people in those communities (polluter pays).

Without a doubt, this ridiculous bill is a failure because it shifts the costs of a problem caused by agriculture onto public water agencies, giving us yet another example of how farmers representing less than 3 percent of California’s population, economy and workforce screw over the other 97 percent of Californians.****
So, that’s the most recent development in the ongoing, worthless “discourses” in water policy — a human right to water — and another example of how politicians totally screw up policy present empty promises as “solutions.”
 
If you’re interested in hearing more of my thoughts on this topic, challenging those thoughts, or adding your own ideas and impressions, then tune into tomorrow’s webinar on Chapter 11 of my book (A human right to water), here at 9am Pacific (get the time in your location and test your Flash installation).
Bottom Line: Words are nice, but deeds matter. The easiest way to get deeds is to create an incentive to act, and fine words from activists to politicians are hollow unless those politicians (and their bureaucratic minions) must deliver results.


* I submitted the paper to Water Resources Management in August 2011, but they failed to find referees for it after one year. I withdrew it last week. FAIL.
** I go on to suggest that a property right in water is more likely to result in water service to the poor, since they will be able to convert their rights into money, and money DOES flow towards those who can pay.
*** I asked a representative of one of those counties about the “cowshit plume” in groundwater about eight years ago. She changed the subject to their LEED-certified office building. They were either too afraid of or owned by dairy farmers.
**** This pattern holds in many countries, with the noble exceptions of New Zealand and Australia.

reposted with permission from Aguanomics

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