On October 31, 2004, the people of Uruguay made history by being the first people in the world to vote on the human right to water.
By an almost two-thirds majority, the people of Uruguay voted to amend their constitution to ensure not only that access to piped water and sanitation is a fundamental human right available to everyone, but also that in the creation of water policies social considerations take precedence over economic considerations. Further, the constitution must now reflect that the “public service of water supply for human consumption will be served exclusively and directly by state legal persons” – that is to say, not by for-profit companies.
The referendum in Uruguay was the result of a two-year grassroots fight led by a network called the National Commission for the Defence of Water and Life. It was composed of trade unions, human rights groups, and environmental organizations including Friends of the Earth Uruguay. This fight also brought unprecedented support from the international civil society water movement, which provided funding, resource materials, a massive number of e-mails and letters of support, and visiting delegations who then took the story of this struggle back to their home countries. People in Argentina are now organizing to promote a similar constitutional amendment on the right to water.
Maude Barlow, founder of the Blue Planet Project, was in Uruguay to witness this historical moment. “The night before I left I spoke to hundreds of people at a big public forum, assuring them that their work had been worth it and that we would take their constitutional amendment and use it as the basis of an international campaign. But the standing ovation and tears came when I ended my speech with the words affirming that on October 31. ‘Todos somos uruguayos’ – we are all Uruguayans.”