State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Water Human Rights: Economic Scarcity

In my earlier blog, I began arguing that water is a human right, and that the extreme lack of potable water is a significant human rights violation.  The scale of the human rights violation of the right to drinking water is on an extremely large scale. The largest occurrence of this right being violated is in developing countries, specifically in Africa, Asia, and South America.  Many of these countries are located in desert areas with low rainfall, making it difficult to access water.  Over 1 billion people, or 1/6 of the population of the world, live without clean drinking water–an enormous amount.  Water scarcity issues know no boundaries – they can cross between cities, states, countries, and continents.


As an environmental engineering student focusing on water resources, I did not truly realize the extent and urgency of the water issue.  When thoroughly analyzed, the human rights issue of clean water availability is unique in many different ways.  The issue is so multifaceted that it is difficult to find where to begin and which issues are the most urgent to address.  The situation seems to be able to be split into several distinct areas, though there is still a large amount of overlap.   The major issues I will be addressing over my next three blog posts are economic scarcity, physical scarcity, and pollution.

The issue of economic scarcity is often the most significant issue in the human rights violation of the unavailability of clean water.  In the developing world of Africa, Asia and South America, there are plentiful groundwater supplies, but the countries do not have the money to install pumps or the electricity to power them and build suitable infrastructure.  Even if they can get a pump installed, there are so few that people are forced to walk miles and miles to reach this water source, and if something breaks there is no way to successfully and quickly repair it. Also, many developing countries have access to extremely polluted water supplies that are not acceptable to use.  With some investment, it could be made to potable quality.  However, the countries such as these do not have the money to invest in a water treatment plant, so instead they use the polluted resources available to them.

So in this situation, who is violating the clean water rights of these people? It is difficult to tell.  The governments in these countries are not often stable enough to supply this basic right to the citizens, so who does it fall to next? Should rich countries, such as the United States and European countries, spend the money to build this infrastructure and provide them with water? Should it fall to the United Nations to raise the funds and have it implemented? In the Millennium Declaration in 2000, 150 heads of state in the UN pledged to reduce by 50% the number of people without access to safe drinking water.  This declaration means that everyone is taking it upon themselves to help, but since it is a declaration and not international law, it is not easy to enforce.

Next week I will discuss the physical scarcity issue in the human rights issue of water. Following weeks will conclude the discussion of pollution issues and a discussion of possible next steps.

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Meghna Bhattacharjee
Meghna Bhattacharjee
14 years ago

This is a very polarizing topic, and I’m glad that you are bringing it up on a level platform here. As much as I wish water could be a human right, I think I would have quite a few economists to contend with. How could we possibly find a happy medium?