08/31/2010 01:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clean Water -- A Basic Human Right

Americans tend to think of water shortages, lack of access to safe drinking water and deadly droughts as problems that occur elsewhere in the world. And it is true that many places on earth are much more seriously impacted by these conditions. In fact the United Nations General Assembly recently passed a resolution put forward by Bolivia, and co-sponsored by 35 countries, to affirm "the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights." Clean Water Action applauds this statement on the need to protect the global commons and relieve human suffering.

This is a non binding resolution, but a powerful statement by the international community that water is not a commodity to be owned by a nation or corporation. It is not a resource to be used to carelessly wash away pollutants and the waste of agricultural and manufacturing processes.

The United States has an abundance of clean, safe drinking water systems. Developed countries in general tend to regard drinking water as a baseline resource that is, and always has been there. That people in developed nations can rely on their drinking water without too much concern is not an accident. It is the result of many years of hard work by activists and advocates for clean water. When the Clean Water Act of 1972 was signed into law by President Nixon, the United States reversed direction and established regulation of our water resources, remediation of polluted bodies of water and universal access to drinkable, swimmable and fishable water.

Although we continue to move in the right direction, we have many ongoing challenges to address in protecting our country's drinking water. As water advocates, our challenge is to build support for better systems and policy. Clean Water Action is currently working on an exciting project with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is working with us, water utilities, health organizations and other constituents to develop a much better and more effective set of Drinking Water Principles. This effort is long overdue and could move us much farther along the river in our journey to prevent pollutants from getting into our water in the first place.

In a society driven by profits and politics, clean, safe water is the result of a sustained, vigilant effort. But how do our actions impact the rest of the world's water? The pollution we generate becomes part of the global commons. American and European corporations with large, offshore operations very often site their facilities in countries where laws protecting air and water are less strict or essentially non-existent. You need look no further than the Shell Oil's operations in Nigeria to see an example of the worst kind of corporate behavior destroying the water resources of an area.

Closer to home, the maqiladoras of Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, are naked efforts by United States corporations to escape environmental and labor laws. They dump a nightmarish mixture of deadly toxins into the air and water of a small community of workers. Local streams are dangerously toxic, pollution pervades every aspect of life.

Water is a basic human right. For those of us in the United States it's a case of there, but for environmental law, go we. The world has a long way to go to realize the aspiration of the UN's resolution and the United States is no exception. The damage done to the Clean Water Act under the Bush Administration has to be addressed. Congress could take a huge substantive and symbolic steps by passing the America's Commitment to Clean Water Act and by reauthorizing The Toxics Substances Control Act this year.