The 5th World Water Forum ended on Sunday (World Water Day), and in spite of the many pieces of good news, the dominant news story is that the group recognized water as a basic human need, not a basic human right.
While this may seem like an issue of semantics, I think there is a difference between a human need and a human right, and I’ll take the unpopular stand that the WWF made the right call. Water is a basic human need; this is undeniably a true statement. Moreover, part of the role of a functioning society is to make sure basic needs of its members are met. Calling water a human need does not diminish its importance.
While I am committed to seeing the greatest possible number of people have access to clean and reliable water, I wouldn’t say that water is a human right; it’s just to close to saying water should be provided for free. To call something a right implies the existence of a framework to protect that right. Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness: these are rights, at least in the United States, but only because an entire government exists to protect and secure them for its citizens. Saying water is a human right in places where no such framework exists simply has no meaning. Calling it a need, on the other hand, is not only accurate, but also gives us something to strive for: meeting that need.
The problem with calling water a right is that water isn’t like air; it’s not something that can be provided for free. Investments need to be made in order to provide a reliable supply of clean, safe water, and how to pay for these investments is an important and controversial issue. The concept of water as a right seems to imply, somehow, that it’s more important to make these investments than to figure out how to pay for them.
Let’s work to provide water for everyone, but let’s be realistic about the costs involved. And that starts with calling a need a need. And a right a right.