Water as a Human Right?

A recent Sense & Sustainability article reported on Slovenia’s 2016 decision to make access to drinkable water a basic right for all its citizens. The country’s Prime Minister stated that the decision was aimed at protecting their abundant, high quality water supplies from being the target of foreign countries and international corporations in the future. By advocating in this way for codifying water as a human right, Slovenia’s Prime Minister reinforces the perceived tension between a market-based view of water, where water is treated as an economic good, and a right-based view of water, where water is treated a fundamental right that somehow transcends market forces. In this article, we take a closer look at the tension between these two perspectives, and in particular offer a brief analysis of the implications of declaring water to be a human right.

At present, the world remains divided on the question of whether water should be treated as a human right or a market good. The 1992 Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development outlined a now hotly contested set of principles declaring “water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good”. In apparent contrast, the rights-based view of water has been most strongly formalized in General Comment No. 15 adopted by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2002, declaring “The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” We say apparent, since the Dublin Statement also stipulates that “fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment.” Critics of the market-based view seem to have ignored this attempt at balance. (In fact, both sides of the market versus rights debate appear to treat the issue as black and white, with little acknowledgement of any nuance in the other side’s views.) Building on General Comment No. 15, 122 member states later passed UN General Assembly resolution 64/292, declaring water a fundamental human right. The approving member states, primarily developing countries, based their support for the resolution on the importance of water for life and the impact they expect the resolution to have on progress towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. In contrast, 41 mostly developed countries abstained from the vote.

What drove these countries to abstain? The US representative believed that “neither the Assembly, nor the Geneva process had yet considered fully the legal implications of a declared right to water” and that “the text had diverted the Assembly from the serious international efforts under way to promote greater coordination on water and sanitation issues”. The United Kingdom abstained for reasons of substance and procedure: there was no sufficient legal basis for declaring or recognizing water or sanitation as freestanding human rights, nor had a consensus been achieved among member states. The Netherlands abstained because although the country recognizes the right to clean water and sanitation, the resolution did not place adequate responsibility on national governments, who are ultimately in charge of the provision of these services. Canada abstained because such a non-binding resolution appeared to determine that there was indeed a right to water without setting out its scope in any useful detail. In short, these abstaining countries acknowledge the crucial need for access to drinking water and sanitation for all people. The countries’ objections arise over matters of practical implementation. Just because something is declared a human right does not mean we have the necessary mechanisms in place to source adequate funding, and deliver the needed results in a timely, sustainable and effective manner.

South Africa illustrates a case in point. Its 1996 constitution became one of the earliest to formally codify the human right to water, and has since been lauded as the “model social rights constitution”. The constitution assigns to every person a free basic water allocation of 25 liters (6.6 gallons) per person per day, available within 200 meters (0.1 mile) of a household. Municipalities impose tariff structures designed such that large users subsidize the free basic allocations for the poor.

So how well has this system worked so far? Between 1994 and 2006, the number of people who did not have adequate access to water shrank from 12 million to 8 million. The improvement of even one person’s living conditions must be lauded as a success. However, it has been extremely difficult to objectively evaluate the extent to which these observed improvements to the system can be attributed to the designation of water as a human right. Is this improvement greater than would have been the case if water had not been recognized in the constitution? Furthermore, these successes have by no means been universal. Large scale inequality remains: wealthy areas have only 3% of the population who still lack adequate access to clean water within 200 m of their residence, while in poorer provinces this number stands at 27%. In addition, collection of revenue has been challenging and many areas do not have enough high volume users to balance the cost of the free entitlements. Fundamentally, one cannot equate the human right to water to cost-free water: even if water itself is free and belongs to everyone, the storage, treatment and distribution of water still costs money irrespective of its status as a right. Barring a government capable of covering the shortfall, limited financial resources will continue to hamper the effectiveness of such schemes. To reinforce this point, prior to Slovenia’s recent declaration, twelve of the seventeen countries that declare water as a human right in their constitution fall within the bottom half of 2014 “rule of law” rankings, and thus appear to have weak governing institutions. If a country like South Africa with comparatively strong governing institutions struggles to provide all its citizens with access to water, how much more so will countries with weaker governing institutions, declarations notwithstanding?

A shortfall of government funds and capacity such as this is exactly the reason why possible private sector involvement and a more economic view of water continues to rear its head in these discussions. All too often, these discussions pit water as a right and water as a commodity against each other as opposite extremes. Experience would suggest that actionable, effective and lasting change often appears to come from the vast grey area somewhere in between. Notable naturalist, E.O. Wilson has observed that humans have “Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” Never are these Stone Age emotions more visible, heated and uncompromising than in the discussion between rights- and market-based views of our most precious resource.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on March 24, 2017.

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