UN Special Rapporteur focuses on water and ecosystems at 54th session of Human Rights Council

10 Oct 2023 by The Water Diplomat

"In a world often referred to as the 'blue planet,' it remains astounding that approximately 2 billion people still lack guaranteed access to safe drinking water," the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Mr. Pedro Arrojo-Agudo said in his opening remarks at the 54th session of the Human Rights Council held recently in Geneva.

In his remarks, Mr. Arrojo-Agudo underscored the gravity of the growing global water crisis, a paradox that affects millions of people worldwide saying; “Aquatic ecosystems, such as wetlands, rivers, and lakes, play a vital role in supporting life on Earth. They have served as natural supply networks for human settlements for thousands of years, especially benefiting rural communities and indigenous peoples.”

Further, Mr. Arrojo-Agudo expressed deep concern over the degradation of these critical aquatic ecosystems, including the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland. "Climate change exacerbates this crisis, leading to droughts and floods," he noted. "Legal and illegal mining activities introduce heavy metals and toxins, polluting aquatic ecosystems worldwide and endangering the health of millions."

To address these challenges, the Special Rapporteur proposed initiating international discussions to categorize actions leading to massive pollution as crimes against humanity and regulating ecocide. He also highlighted the devastating effects of biological pollution, driven by unsustainable irrigation and pesticide use, leaving millions without drinking water and damaging vital aquifers.

Among the contentious topics that took centre stage, Japan's decision to discharge nuclear-contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station into the ocean dominated discussions, sparking global concern. Japan defended its decision, asserting its adherence to international safety standards and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Japan’s representative Mr. Shiota Takahiro emphasized transparency, stating, "We believe in sharing real-time data with the international community, and we urge discussions based on scientific evidence."

However, scepticism loomed large. China voiced doubts, with Mr. Chen Xu, its representative stating, "Japan has not convincingly proven the legitimacy and safety of its discharge decision." The Republic of Korea raised questions about Japan's priorities, stating, "Japan appears more focused on its nuclear and missile program than on improving human rights."

Amidst the Japan-centred debate, Armenia brought attention to another pressing issue. They voiced concerns over electricity and gas disruptions in Nagorno-Karabakh, caused by the release of water from the Sarsang Reservoir. "This poses environmental risks and affects local livelihoods," warned the Armenian representative.

Concurrently, Azerbaijan which faces ongoing pollution of rivers due to actions by neighbouring Armenia, highlighted the critical issue of transboundary water pollution. Ms. Dilara Abdullayeva, called for accountability and urged international institutions to address these harmful actions. She emphasized that Armenia's allegations against Azerbaijan are groundless and aimed at covering up its wrongdoings highlighting Armenia's denial of responsibility for aggression and mass atrocities and criticized Armenia's treatment of Azerbaijani servicemen.

Additionally, the State of Palestine addressed the issue of water colonization and stressed that water rights cannot be compromised. Ms. Riham Barghouthi raised concerns about the abuse of rights of reply to stifle debate and silence inconvenient truths saying; "Water colonization can never be justified."

In the same vein, over 70 nations’ representatives echoed the sentiment that factors such as race, ethnicity, or language should never be barriers to enforcing regulations and laws regarding safe drinking water. This was seen as an important step in ensuring equitable access to this fundamental right for all.

Hungary emphasized its commitment to the fundamental human right to safe drinking water, recognizing that access to clean water is crucial for maintaining peace while India showcased its progress in providing access to drinking water and sanitation for all its citizens and its efforts to combat groundwater pollution and protect the environment.

Vietnam, acutely aware of climate change's impact on water resources, sought advice on innovative climate-resilient technologies. Mr. Cung Duc Han showcased their progress in improving water access for their citizens, emphasizing the importance of safe water and sanitation for health, resilience, and prosperity.

UNESCO, as a custodian of knowledge and science, highlighted the critical role of science and data in addressing water-related challenges. They emphasized the importance of open science and its contribution to climate resilience and adaptation.

In this multi-faceted dialogue, the importance of upholding human rights, including the right to access safe drinking water and sanitation, was evident. Constructive dialogue emerged as a crucial tool for addressing complex international issues and fostering cooperation among nations to tackle global challenges head-on.

Developing countries emphasized the importance of technological assistance to maximize water efficiency and reliability, especially for regions facing water scarcity. They also highlighted the detrimental impact of sanctions on their water and sanitation sectors, calling for a more comprehensive and humanitarian approach.