Towards Water Justice in Tourism

People's Rights First

By Sumesh Mangalassery

The decision of UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (2010) that affirms water as a human right is a major success for civil society groups who have been fighting for community water rights for decades. It is considered to be historic and a big step in the right direction. This gives new momentum to local groups and movements fighting for water justice. The recognition of water as a human right involves consequent responsibilities on the part of the state to prioritize people's water-related needs and rights over commercial interests - also in tourism.

The human right to water is indispensable for a life in dignity and a condition for the protection of a whole series of other rights. All people, including the poorest, have a right to clean drinking water, water for domestic use, and sewage disposal. However, the state and local authorities have often given priority to economic interests in their water allocations while the needs and rights of the local population have been ignored.

Tourism Industry's vs. Communities' Needs

The tourism industry is notorious for its consumption and water is one of the essential resources for tourism businesses. In many tourist centres, access to water for local communities is one of the most important issues. The inflow of tourists means an increase in population which results in a much higher demand for water, and often in the over-exploitation of this valuable resource. Many tourist destinations face acute water shortages. Tourist facilities which cater to the luxury life style of the tourists during their holidays, including showers, swimming pools, watering of lawns, golf courses, and water theme parks often affect the local water reserves, pollute water sources and deplete ground water.

For example, water-starved Vidarbha district, Maharashtra state, India, has a growing number of water parks and amusement centres. In a region that scarcely receives adequate water to meet people's drinking water needs, women walk up to 15 km in a day to fetch it. The region was declared as scarcity-hit in 2004. Yet, there is plenty of water for the playgrounds of the rich. The Fun N' Food Village Water & Amusement Park in Bazargaon (about 35 km from Nagpur) is advertising its various pools, water slides and water related entertainments.

Water Justice and Tourism

The purchasing capacity of tourist resorts and facilities ensures their access to safe, potable water. Industry is appropriating water which is essential for the survival and well-being of local communities. However, the human right to water clearly entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use. Unlike any other resource, the impact of the lack of safe drinking water is immense. It has immediate adverse impacts on health, particularly among the elderly and children. It increases the workload of women in their effort to get and transport water.

In the tourism context, the primacy of human rights over commercial interests is very important. Communities are demanding water for their basic survival while the tourism industry is appropriating water for commercial purposes. Local communities must get priority in water allocation. Otherwise, the commercialization of water resources may represent violations of basic human rights. Each state has the obligation to prevent third parties (including tourism industry) from interfering in the enjoyment of the right to water.

Democratic Governance - the Need of the Hour

Water privatization and private control ignores the need for safeguards against conflicts of interest for protecting community rights. If water is viewed as an ‘economic good', only those who can afford the price will be able to access water.

Furthermore, the human right to water argument is not limited to the access to water, but extends to the public control over water. The population have access to the water it requires - in quality, quantity, and regularity - for its everyday needs. Governments must democratically introduce and effectively enforce adequate laws and regulations which safeguard the water rights of local people. The polluter pays principle must be enforced to ensure that the environment is not adversely affected to the detriment of local communities. Observing laws and regulations constitutes a minimum requirement that the tourism industry must meet.

The last few years witnessed immense mobilisations and hard won battles for communities in defending water as a human right. The integration of tourism issues in this global movement is crucial to make use of the existing momentum to ensure communities human rights. Tourism campaign groups should make use of this existing impetus and protect local community rights to resources rather than just joining the industry band wagon of Corporate Social Responsibility. We need more democracy in terms of governance to ensure safe, clean and adequate drinking water for all and safeguard the rights especially for the marginalised. We demand public and participatory control over water and other natural resources in tourist destinations, too. Water is a basic human right that cannot be compromised by tourism.

Further information: Tourism and the Human Right to Water. Power Point Presentation, 2006. Download: eed_tw_tourism_and_water_06_eng.pdf

Sumesh Mangalassery is a founder member of "KABANI - the other direction", a voluntary initiative working on tourism issues in India.

(841 words, 72 lines, TW 63, forthcoming)