Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Hears Testimony on Freshwater Loss Due to Climate Change

Regional water supplies at risk in many regions of the Western hemisphere


Martin Wagner, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6700


John McManus, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6707

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights today heard expert testimony describing the human rights implications of freshwater loss caused by climate change occurring in the Western hemisphere. The panel included a scientist, a farmer from the Bolivian Andes, and an international legal expert.

The hearing was requested in January 2011 by Earthjustice and the Bolivian advocacy group Agua Sustentable.

The commission heard from Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Trenberth was a coordinating lead author of the 2007 IPCC assessment, and is the current chair of the Scientific Steering Group of the Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment under the World Climate Research Programme of the United Nations.

Trenberth said, “Global warming is changing precipitation in the Americas and around the world: rains are becoming more intense increasing risk of floods, but with longer dry spells and increased risk of droughts. Snow seasons are shorter, with less snow pack. Glaciers are melting. The IPCC projects that by 2055, between 80 and 170 million people in Latin America will likely have insufficient water for their basic needs. Water management will be a major challenge for governments in the coming decades.”

Also presenting to the commission today was Alivio Aruquipa from Khapi, Bolivia. His indigenous community is facing the loss of reliable freshwater as the glaciers that provide the community’s dry-season water melt because of climate change. Aruquipa told the commission about climate change-induced glacier loss in his, and other, Bolivian communities. The loss of sufficient glacial meltwater to meet dry-season needs for consumption, sanitation, and irrigation threatens the survival of his community and poses a serious risk to the survival of the language, beliefs, customs, and other elements of Aymara culture.

Mr. Aruquipa said, “Mi comunidad y yo dependemos del Illimani, sus aguas riegan nuestros sembradíos y la usamos para tomar, cocinar y bañarnos como lo hacían nuestros antepasados. El Ilimani cada vez se derrite mas y estamos preocupados por nuestros hijos, ya no tendrán agua para tomar, para regar sus tierras ni para los animales que nos ayudan a preparar la tierra.” [“My community and I rely on the Illimani glacier. Its waters irrigate our crops; we use it for drinking, cooking and bathing as our ancestors did. Every year the glacier melts more, so we are worried for our children—they will no longer have water to drink, to irrigate our lands, or to sustain the animals that help us prepare our fields.”]

Earthjustice International Program head Martin Wagner presented on behalf of Earthjustice and 19 other NGOs. His presentation explains how basic human rights are threatened by the loss of freshwater resulting from climate change.

Wagner told the panel, “The anticipated effects of climate change on access to freshwater throughout the hemisphere will cause human suffering and undermine basic human rights. The nations of the world—particularly those most responsible for climate change—must redouble their efforts to stop climate change and do everything they can to assist the poor and vulnerable communities that will suffer the greatest as a result of these changes.”

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Update (April 11, 2011):
As a result of the hearing, the Commission joined a growing list of influential international bodies in recognizing that climate change affects the most fundamental human rights. The Commission’s press release of April 2011 noted:

The Commission also received alarming information on the already serious impact of anthropogenic climate change on the enjoyment of human rights, especially in mountain regions where the widespread loss of glaciers and snow pack and rising temperatures are diminishing access to water, harming food production, and introducing new diseases. The Commission urges States to keep human rights at the forefront of climate change negotiations, including in designing and implementing measures of mitigation and adaptation.


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