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A Human Right to Water – Can it Make a Difference?

This is the second post in a series exploring the question of ‘Water as a Human Right’.

Despite the UN’s 2010 resolution on the human right to water, debate continues over how useful a rights approach really is. Even if we identify water as a human right, where the state is the principal duty-bearer, will it improve access to water for communities in need?

Debates over this question can become pretty heated, and sometimes two sides seem to be shouting from opposite sides of an ideological divide. At the 2011 Global Water Summit, for example, a debate was held posing the question, “Is cost recovery pricing the best way to ensure the poor have access to good water services?” The discussion elucidated two conflicting positions about how water should be governed. David Zetland, Senior Water Economist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, argued that market valuation and full cost recovery is the best way to conserve and appropriately distribute water – and that government involvement should be kept to a minimum. This point of view believes making water a human right won’t improve services and access.

On the other side Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food and Water Watch, presented the argument that water is a human right, a public trust, and part of the shared commons that should not be bought and sold for profit. Economic valuation has, according to this side, led to governance failures and huge gaps in service provision to the poor, and is part of a “right-wing agenda” to profit from a shared public resource. For Hauter, the human right to water is a practical tool to organize against the involvement of big business in water provision

Neighborhood activists gathered in Central Jakarta to call for clean and accessible water on World Water Day 2011. From the Jakarta Globe, March 23, 2011.

This debate and others like it highlight a common misconception about the human right to water – that it is synonymous with opposition to privatization of water utilities and full cost recovery. But the human rights project does not belong to one ideological corner, it should not be understood as simply the tool of anti-privatization activists (despite it’s ubiquity in the discourse of this movement), especially because the human right to water doesn’t specify a water governance structure, nor does it imply that water should be free.

The UN Special Representative on the Human Right to Water argues that an articulation of the rights and obligations pertaining to water access and provision will help promote, “pro-poor and non-discriminatory service provision”. But she is also clear that water must be affordable, not free. The Special Representative clarifies that the human right to water does not favor a particular economic model or method of service delivery; rather it lays out standards that states must seek to achieve for their citizens, or must ensure their private sector providers are achieving.

One example of where advocates argue such a right could make a difference is in a city like Jakarta. In the capital of Indonesia, only around 16% of the urban poor are connected to a municipal water supply. Their alternative sources of water (like small private networks, bottled water, home-made wells etc.) end up burdening them with a disproportionately large financial cost. Also, poor quality of water in Jakarta due to endemic pollution leads to diarrheal diseases – a leading cause of morbidity in infants. The poor bear a disproportionate share of this tragic health burden as well.

Researchers recently mapped out the gaps in piped water service provision and found that government policies and private providers from the Dutch colonial era to the present day have deliberately expanded the piped water network amongst the affluent parts of the city – what the authors call “key economic zones”. These are the sorts of “governance failures”, as termed by Dr. Karen Bakker, that is the focus of a human right to water.

While the human rights framework has certainly been central to the anti-privatization movement, this is not its sole purpose. The human right to water, I think, was not intended to solve the problem of water governance failures. What it does is give leverage to those vulnerable communities who are the victims of governance failures. It calls attention to their plight in a clear, recognizable language of rights and duty-bearers, and pressures government to remedy this situation by prioritizing the poor.

The next post will look at some examples of where the human right to water has been used to improve the accountability of government and service providers to poor and vulnerable communities.

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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