By Rafael Ziegler for Big Jump Challenge

In this interview, we spoke with H.E. Jorge Jurado, the first ‘water minister’ of Ecuador from 2008-2010 and since then Ambassador of Ecuador in Berlin. Jurado is a leading political thinker re-envisaging the approach to water in Latin America. He is the author of numerous books and has lectured on water to audiences across the world, including at the Unites Nations. Here he explains the thinking behind the Ecuadorian approach to water, and its practical implications – and he recalls his time as a student in Berlin.

In 2008, the human right to water became part of the new constitution of Ecuador. How does Ecuador define this right?

Jorge Jurado: The constitution, which was adopted via a referendum in 2008, makes water an unalienable, basic right. Water constitutes a national strategic asset for the use by the public and it is unalienable, not subject to a statute of limitations, immune from seizure and essential for life (Article 12).

The human right to water has to be understood in a larger context. There is in addition a law for governing the management of water in watersheds, with an intercultural and plurinational council. What exactly is this council doing?

The law governing water resources and water uses – precisely: LEY ORGÁNICA DE RECURSOS HÍDRICOS, USOS Y APROVECHAMIENTO DEL AGUA – provides the state with the possibility to manage water in the watershed. It is not the political boundary but the natural boundary of water that determines the efficient administration of the watershed. The intercultural and plurinational council accompanies the water management with advice and its knowledge of the local specifics. It also articulates the interests of the indigenous communities, and ensures that their knowledge of the water resource is considered. This ensures participation and inclusion. Taking into account the social and economic parameters of the community group – and not just the technical information of the water management – is indispensable for a coherent water strategy. And thus also for successful water management.

In addition, community groups have a right to self-governance and indigenous subsistence economy, as well as sustainable use of natural resources, such as water is, protected by the constitution of Ecuador. “Persons, communities, peoples, and nations shall have the right to benefit from the environment and the natural wealth enabling them to enjoy the good way of living [buen vivir]” (Article 74).

The privatization of water has caused many controversies around the world. Why does Ecuador prohibit the privatization of water? And what does this mean in practice for water-intensive sectors such as agriculture and industry?

In Ecuador, water is a basic human and a citizen right. Water cannot be privatized, because human rights cannot be privatized. Agricultural and industry have use rights, which they can exercise under specific conditions. The state determines and distributes the water use rights on the basis of the available freshwater. So here the protection of the watershed again plays a role just as much as the determination of the water volume for economic use. Protection and control to avoid pollution are further aspects of the public water management of Ecuador.

The human right to water is a vision, which at the abstract level is supported by many people. But what has been practically achieved due to this vision in Ecuador?

The national administration of the water resources is no longer a vision, but already put into practice in Ecuador. The comprehensive and integrated administration of water today ensures the use of water for life in our country.  One concrete implication is that the Millenium Development Goals for improved drinking water and sanitation have already been achieved (as well as 20 out of 21 Millennium Development Goals).

The new constitution of Ecuador of 2008 is based on a “cosmo-vision”. Please tell us more about this outlook.

The indigenous cosmo-vision is a worldview, which describes the way of life and customs of the first peoples of Ecuador. Integral part of this cosmo-vision is Sumak Kawsay (in Quichua) or Buen Vivir [good way of living].  Water is a part of our natural heritage and a public good, which is essential for life and therefore also for a life in dignity according to this holistic cosmo-vision. For example, in our water legislation, indigenous community groups also have water use rights in relation to spiritual uses.

So Buen Vivir (the good way of living) is a central element of the Ecuadorian constitution. What is a good way of living for you?

Life in dignity or the good way of living (Buen Vivir) is in my view a societal way of living that ensures that my needs are met without thereby harming the needs of others. It is a life in harmony with nature and in a society where no one is left behind, where there is enough for everyone and no one is missing something.

This is an alternative leitmotif for our society, the state and the economy. Growth does not necessarily mean development. Development is principally a political challenge.

Article 13 of the constitution of Ecuador articulates one of the most important basic rights: food sovereignty. It is a consequence of Buen Vivir: “Persons and community groups have the right to safe and permanent access to healthy, sufficient and nutritional food, preferably produced locally and in keeping with their various identities and cultural traditions. The Ecuadorian State shall promote food sovereignty.” But Article 32 of the constitution is also very important for the practical implementation of Buen Vivir: “Health is a right guaranteed by the State and whose fulfillment is linked to the exercise of other rights, among which the right to water, food, education, sports, work, social security, healthy environments and others that support the good way of living [Buen Vivir].”

What can Europe and its countries learn from Ecuador’s water politics? Where do you see possibilities for transfer and learning?

Ecuador can be an example for the principled prohibition of water privatization via the constitution, and for the practical implementation of this step in the water law of 2014. Another important example is the order of priority in uses of water: first water resources for human consumption, then for irrigation to guarantee food sovereignty, then for ecological wealth and only then for productive activities (Article 318).

In some parts of Europe, there is currently a hydropower boom. From a nature conservation perspective, this threatens the last free-flowing rivers of Europe; whereas other argue that hydropower is a relatively clean renewable source of energy for economic development. How to think about this conflict from the perspective of the constitution of Ecuador?

In Ecuador we used the enormous differences in altitude of water coming from the Andes, so that we hardly need to construct any dams. However, the just mentioned article 318 really offers the clue to your question: the industrial use of water is ranked in the priority of uses after the human consumption, after food sovereignty and after ecology. Thus, there are constitutional limitations to the industrial use of water power.

In their “Youth Manifesto for Water Protection 2015, young people from all over Europe articulated their vision for the use of water.  They have done so in the context of the Big Jump Challenge (BJC) – Youth Campaign for Water Protection in Europe. What advice do you give to the BJC-participants for the further implementation of their vision?

The initiative of the youth for this important ecological topic of healthy rivers is wonderful. In my opinion, however, there is even more at stake: we should use our forces to care for the water cycle in its entirety!

Last but not least, the good way of living again: for the BJC participants, this also means to swim in rivers and lakes and to stand in relation with them. You studied in Berlin. What are your memories of the Spree? And did you go swimming in the Spree or Havel rivers during your studies?

No, I never went swimming in the Spree or the Havel as they were very polluted during my student days in West-Berlin in the 70s and early 80s.  But the youth in the 70s were a real societal force that changed many things, especially culturally. Mentalities changed in a very positive way during my stay in Berlin. During this time, many people tried to understand the causes of inequality and poverty, and to remove them. That is why I have such a positive memory of my West-Berlin time, where a majority of citizens was politically active and articulated its demands and goals actively. I hope that the BJC-youth will continue their activities and on their terms for the political challenges of our time!

Further link: The constitution of Ecuador