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A Right, a Need, or an Economic Good? Debating our Relationship to Water

Access to clean drinking water may seem the most intrinsic of human rights.

Photo: Andy Thomson/Oxfam

Yet it was only in 2010 that the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution making water an independent human right. Until last year, most countries, UN bodies and international development organizations treated water as an implicit rather than explicit part of the human rights framework, one that was embedded in other internationally recognized rights such as the right to life, or right to health. Some governments and international organizations viewed (and continue to view) water as a basic human need, rather than a right, which does not require a legally accountable duty-bearer. And the highly influential Dublin Principles established at the 1992 United Nations International Conference on Water and Sustainable Development described water as an “economic good”.

But a shift has taken place in the last ten to fifteen years, spurred by a movement to have access to clean water integrated into the international human rights regime. Who lobbied for this resolution? And what effect did they hope it would have? Actors include international health institutions such as the World Health Organization, human rights organizations like Amnesty International, and a transnational anti-privatization movement made up of local and international NGOs. Their campaign seeks to highlight inequality of access to water across the world, and argues water is the most fundamental human development issue facing poor communities. With water enshrined as a human right, there would be an international standard against which to judge the performance of governments whose duty is to supply potable water to their citizens.

This campaign, in tandem with the growing urgency expressed by scientists about a looming global water shortage, influenced United Nations deliberations. In 2002 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights released General Comment 15, which recommended water be recognized in international law as an independent human right, and that states be legally accountable for supplying “sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water.” The UN Economic and Social Council argued that the social and cultural, not just economic, value of water be taken into account, expressing concern that pricing alone cannot ensure equitable access to clean water for all people, nor can it safeguard the needs of local ecosystems. Then, in December of 2003, the General Assembly proclaimed the “Water for Life Decade 2005-2015”, as a means of promoting the fulfillment of international water commitments by 2015.

These initiatives were followed up in 2007 with a report by the Human Rights Council in which the High Commissioner stated, “it is now time to consider access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right”. This study held a consultative session with representatives from countries such as Belgium, that recognizes water as a human right in its domestic law; intergovernmental organizations including UNDP and WHO; private sector actors such as Aquafed and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development; NGOs like Amnesty International, Corporate Accountability International, Council of South America Indigenous Peoples and Nations Coalition, and the International Environmental Law Research Center. Subsequently, the UN appointed Ms Catarina de Albuquerque as the independent expert on the right to water, with the task of assessing states’ obligations and responsibilities pertaining to this emergent international norm.

Governments of particular countries have also been key. Bolivia played a leadership role in compiling the text of the human right to water for a vote in the General Assembly. Co-sponsoring countries of the text included Latin American nations, such as Dominica, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Paraguay, and some African nations including Burundi, Congo, and the Central African Republic. In 2010 the UNHRC passed the resolution on the human right to water with 122 countries voting in favor, none against, and 41 abstentions.

Why did some countries abstain? Why is this seemingly innate human right a debated issue? Those who abstained, including the USA, Australia, UK and Canada, generally argued that there is no legal basis for a right to water in international law, and that the vote should not have been held until Ms Albuquerque finalized and presented her special report on duties associated with a right to water. The US representative also stated, “The United States regrets that this resolution diverts us from the serious international efforts underway to promote greater coordination and cooperation on water and sanitation issues.” In other words, the contentious politics that the GA resolution invites may distract from the “serious” scientific, apolitical work of water experts and development organizations.

Photo: Six Cents Press

Another prominent critique of the human right to water is that it implies water should be supplied for free. This is a response to activists who promote this right as a means of opposing privatization of water utilities and control of water sources by private, for-profit corporations. (It’s no coincidence that Bolivia was the main sponsor of the resolution, a country that experienced fatal violent protests back in 2002 after privatizing its water utilities.) For anti-privatization activists, enshrining access to water as an independent human right should affirm the role of the state as the principal duty-bearer in water provision, and guard against privatization which they believe commodifies a public good and makes access less affordable. But on the other hand, the ongoing failure of governments around the world to fund the infrastructure necessary for improving water quality and access means private sector involvement continues to be an attractive option.

Debates about the human right to water, and the role of the state or private companies in ensuring access, illustrate that water provision is anything but apolitical. And citizens around the world – not just engineers or policy experts – increasingly see a role for themselves in determining how water is governed and supplied. These debates are the subject of my blog series on an emerging human right to water.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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Jackson Yeo
Jackson Yeo
13 years ago

Most enlightening.Looking forward to your next contribution.Thankyou.

David Zetland
13 years ago

Interesting overview but no analysis. Hopefully that will show up in the next blog posts. I hope that you have time to consider the following:

These ideas are also summarized in my recent book (the end of abundance).


ps/General Comment #15 is a joke.

12 years ago

Maybe the best way for ensuring watter supply for all is with a partnership between governments and private companies.