Safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are crucial for poverty reduction, crucial for sustainable development and crucial for achieving any and every one of the Millennium Development Goals. – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
It should be easy for most Barbadians to sympathize, or perhaps even empathize, with the plight of the residents of those local districts who have had to endure a regrettable lack of piped water to their homes in recent months. It certainly is no laughing matter when one is forced to endure the discomfort and displeasure of not being able to flush a toilet by a mere press of the plunger or unable to take a shower at the end of a long hot day. The “bathe-up” or standpipe baths and gatherings of bygone Barbados ought not to be an imperative for the contemporary taxpayer. To add insult to injury, it has been reported that bills, more than nominal in some cases, continue to be issued to these long-suffering individuals for water usage by the Barbados Water Authority.
It is equally easy, if one is so inclined, to use this unfortunate circumstance as an opportunity to bash the hapless administration in office and to classify its occurrence, as has been done by more than a few, as an example of poor governance, of poor leadership, an abdication of ministerial responsibility or a heady cocktail of all the above.
At one level, the state does bear ultimate responsibility if this “essential service” should not be supplied to all citizens without discrimination. According to several of the international conventions that we have ratified, ensuring the national supply of safe, potable water is an express state obligation. For example, under Article 24 (2)(c) of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), States parties are required to pursue full implementation of this right and, in particular, shall take appropriate measures: … (c) To combat disease and malnutrition, including within the framework of primary health care, through, inter alia, the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking water [Emphasis added].
And Article 14 (2) of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) mandates states parties to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in rural areas to ensure…to women the right: … [h] To enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply, transport and communications.” [Emphasis added]
Other conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also recognize the right to water as an international human right, obligating the state to ensure to its citizens the supply of sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.
At another level, however, the state may lawfully claim exemption from this obligation where the failure in supply is owed to circumstances such as an Act of God or nature (drought or endemic water scarcity); act or default of another for whom the state assumes no responsibility; or where the failure is otherwise exempted by law so that the claim to an absolute entitlement in any circumstance whatsoever does not arise.
So far as the first is concerned, it may very well be that this condition currently subsists, although the people from the affected districts would not be acting unreasonably to query why the onus of this drought should fall on them unequally.
Nor can the state fairly place the blame on the Barbados Water Authority that, although not constitutionally part of the Crown, bears practically a sufficiently subordinate role thereto as to be considered integrated into the state machinery.
It bears mention in this regard nevertheless, that much of the blame for the recent happenings has been placed on the inherently defective and ancient mains that are currently undergoing replacement. To the extent that this is an ongoing process stretching across the change of governing administrations, it would be clearly inequitable to place all the blame for the delayed achievement of this initiative on the current administration. The partisan ascription of blame, though perhaps electorally beneficial in future, does little to relieve the current insecurity of the affected citizens.
I accept that the figurative horse is well and truly out of the stable, and that from now until the elections bell is rung by the Prime Minister, most civic failings will be seen in a partisan light against the party that comprises the current administration. This is par for the course and, I suppose, those concerned who are far more knowledgeable than I am in these matters will seek to apply and to resist this onslaught as forcefully as may be practicable.
“It is clear that the solutions to the delivery of water and sanitation for all are fundamentally political in nature and not just technical. The need for opening the “Water Tap” for transparency, accountability and participation is vital as we face the rapid increase of urbanization and the frightening implications of climate change for our scarce water resources”-George, Nhlapo and Waldorf- “The politics of achieving the Right to water” (2011)