10/07/2014 03:54 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

The Global Water Contract, Part I

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

That familiar quotation approaches the reality of the world situation, to a point now when an estimated three billion people may not have access to clean fresh water to drink, for hygiene, for cooking, or for basic survival. What if you were one of these: displaced, disqualified, disenfranchised from this fundamental and irreplaceable source of life?

In 1998, a private commission was assembled to address this challenge and to create a Global Water Contract to establish a framework for worldwide understanding, access, distribution, and protection of fresh water as "an inalienable, individual and collective human right." Calling itself The Committee for the Global Water Contract, the group was led by former President of Portugal, Mario Soares, who the same year led a similar commission for the future of the ocean.

The Global Water Contract is based on the premise that, "water is a vital good which belongs to all the inhabitants of the Earth in common. None of them, individually or as a group, can be allowed the right to make it private property. Water is the patrimony of mankind. Individual and collective health depends upon it... There is no production of wealth without access to water. Water is not like any other resource; it is not an exchangeable, marketable commodity."

The Committee report continues: "While the sharing of water has often been a major source of social inequality in the past, today's civilizations recognize that access to water is a fundamental, inalienable, individual and collective right. The right to water is a part of the basic ethics of a "good" society and a "good" economy. It is up to society as a whole, and at the different levels of social organization, to guarantee the right of access, according to the double principle of co-responsibility and subsidiarity, without discrimination of race, sex, religion, income or social class."

The Committee argues for water as a key contributor to the strengthening of solidarity among peoples, communities, countries, genders, and generations. Citing pollution, unequal distribution, privatization, geo-economic interests, existing water conflicts, and drought, the Committee asserts that water is "the citizens' business" and that its integrated and responsible protection and management demands democratic governance and choices and practices to ensure environmental, economic, and societal sustainability.

The contract calls for radical change that goes against the consumption and capital-based mindset and conventions of today concerning ownership and the valorization of other natural resources. "It is society which must collectively assume all of the costs related to the collection, production, storage, distribution, use, conservation and recycling of water in view of supplying and guaranteeing access to water in the quantities and qualities considered as being the indispensable minimum. The costs are common social costs to be borne by the collective as a whole. This principle is even more relevant and significant at the level of a country, a continent, and the world society. The financing must be ensured by collective redistribution. The mechanisms of individual price-fixing, according to progressive pricing, must start from a level of water usage that goes beyond the vital and indispensable minimum. Beyond the vital minimum, progressive pricing must be a function of the quantity used. Finally, at a third layer, all abuses and excesses of usage must be considered illegal."

This is a fundamental, revolutionary change and goes antithetically against the contemporary trends of profligate water use and waste, unregulated, uncontrolled pollution of natural water systems and aquifers, private ownership of water resources, distribution, and associated engineering and technology. It would have no chance for success except for the growing reality of water deprivation extending from desert and developing world communities into drought-stricken and over-consumed areas in such places as California where local limitations and emergencies become more frequent and more public. As the Committee concludes, "A partnership predominantly subject, as at present, to the logic and interests of private actors in relentless competition against each other for market conquest could only do harm to the objectives of access to water for all and global integrated sustainability." That is a convoluted way of saying that something very different must be done.

What, then, does the Committee recommend?