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The first big national gathering of environmental and social organizations in defense of water took place in the context of the Human Right to Water Referendum, from 2006 to 2010. It is impossible to remember this process and its relevance without making reference to Rafael Colmenares, who died this last February 6th, environmental defender who opened in Colombia a debate about the importance of water, a relentless defender against the privatization of common goods and for the defense of Mother Earth.
Among the endless contributions to the environmental struggle in Colombia, Rafael was widely renowned for his work as a spokesman of the Referendum Promotion Committee, which had the support of over 2 million signatures and which in 2010 the Congress, with clear pro-Uribe views, denied.
In the same way, on December 6, 2016, the Congress disregarded the bill that aimed at declaring water as a fundamental right in the Colombian Constitution. These systematic decisions by Congress continue evidencing adverse scenarios for popular participation and the building of initiatives alternative to the extractivist model imposed in the country.
According to statements by the bill proponents, which had the support of over 40 congresspeople, the proposal will be submitted again in the next legislative discussion period. Hoping that this initiative is heard, and that together with other countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay and others at world level, the fundamental right to water is recognized in Colombia, let´s clear up some of the elements in this debate.
First of all, the fundamental right to water is already present in Colombia. According to several rulings by the Constitutional Court, from 1992 to 2015, the right has been recognized in the country through case law. The mechanism most used to recognize it are protection measures, that consider water as a human right since it is a necessary condition to ensure other rights such as life, health, a wholesome environment, etc. Additionally, Colombia has signed a significant number of international treaties and agreements where said right is recognized, and according to the Constitutional Bloc these are control parameters for the Constitution.
Nevertheless, it is important to state that the fact that water is not explicitly enshrined in the Constitution as a fundamental right could mean that, despite its key nature for life, the Colombian State may
not recognize it, and leave only protection measures to ensure it. Secondly, we highlight that there are several ways in which it is possible to understand the fundamental right to water, for instance in Ecuador it is closely linked to the rights to health, cultural uses, food sovereignty and the recognition of nature as a subject of rights. Meanwhile, in Colombia we could make reference to three issues under discussion in the past months. 1) those related to access and the obligation to ensure adequate quality and quantity consumption for communities; 2) those related to the need for a healthy environment, i.e., the State´s responsibility to take care of and protect ecosystems that are essential for the water cycle; 3) the right of populations to participatively decide over the democratic use and management of waters. Now, the bill that was recently disregarded attempted at protecting the first two issues, without making explicit reference to the protection of community rights.
Let´s remember that the fundamental right to water has been an important victory for the people and it is definitively not an end on itself, but an important tool for the defense of life in the territories. This is precisely due to the fact that water is not limited to its determination as a right, but it is also an expression of culture, sacredness, knowledge, the good living, dignified lives, etc.
In this way, despite the bill was rejected, popular sectors are currently looking to legally exercise their right to decide over the water in the territories in an autonomous way. This explains the way communities have managed community aqueducts for decades in every corner of the country, or the signing of municipal agreements, which in some cases have recognized the right to water, the banning of mining-energy activities that damage water or the promotion of multiple popular consultations which are ultimately an effort for people to decide over the use of water.
Beyond a fundamental right, the water issue is crucial for the building of peace in the territories, it is an element of struggle and articulation of territorial processes and the basis to question the current development model and promote sustainable initiatives for a dignified life in Colombia.
We don´t want to end this article without remembering the
unforgettable meaning given by Rafael Colmenares to the struggles for water throughout the country: his permanent discourse, his bravery to defend life and his recognition of the multiple vital dimensions of water.
Farewell, Rafael! We share your struggle and follow your legacy.
Imagen: CENSAT Agua Viva - Friends of the Earth Colombia
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