Water marketing vs. human rights

Two recent articles in The Economist – Water: Sin aqua non and Water rights: Awash in waste – suggest that the solution to world’s water problem is to improve efficiency. The articles explain, rightly, that “there is, globally, no shortage of water” and point at wasteful practices, especially in the agricultural sector, as a chief culprit in global problems related to water scarcity.  The authors, however, tread on sacred grounds by pooh-poohing the treatment of water as a basic human right (“Treating it as a right makes the scarcity worse”) and argue for a system of tradable water-usage rights. “Any economist knows what to do: price water to reflect its value.”


While the ideal of pricing water resources at their true value may have a ring of sanity in the abstract, in reality it threatens a fundamental human notion that water is so elemental to life that it deserves a unique status in our societal system. Many of the world’s religions, for example, regard water as a gift from God that cannot be bought or sold lest the gift be dishonored.  Moreover, by taking a purely economic approach to a component of life relegates life itself to the market.


Yet, there may be a viable middle ground, one that strikes a balance between the absolute needs of individual people for survival and growth, and those of society to ensure efficiency and, hence, the overall and long-term supply of fresh water resources.  While actual uses vary around the world, agriculture accounts for 70-80% of global water withdrawals, while industry takes less than a fifth.  That leaves less than 10% as the amount actually used for domestic purposes and sanitation by a population pushing seven billion.  What would happen if people were afforded a human right to access some minimal amount of water and then subject amounts used in commercial enterprise to the market?


According to the World Health Organization, the average person requires 20 L per day for basic subsistence and up to 70 L per day for maintaining a minimum quality of life.  Obviously, such minimum will vary depending on the climate of the individual’s environment.  Yet, on a global scale, this would be a proverbial drop in the buckets of global water withdrawals and consumption.  Certainly, some nations may have difficulty meeting even this minimal guarantee due to local scarcity of fresh water resources. And in such cases, the global community should step forward and help their fellow human beings.  Yet, the vast majority of countries should have little difficulty in providing and assuring access to such quantities.


As for the amounts used by agriculture and industry, water could be managed using market mechanisms that allow it to be traded as either a commodity or in the context of tradable usage rights.  As The Economist notes, “Water is rarely priced in ways that reflect supply and demand … Because most water use is not measured, let alone priced, trade rarely reflects water scarcities.”  The result is a highly inefficient system that justly could be accused of waste.  Again, The Economist: “Because water is usually free, thirsty crops like alfalfa are grown in arid California. Wheat in India and Brazil uses twice as much water as wheat in America and China. Dry countries like Pakistan export textiles though a 1kg bolt of cloth requires 11,000 litres of water.”


Even amounts used by people beyond a guaranteed allotment could be subject to pricing mechanisms and regulated market forces.  A tiered pricing system, for example, would allow for personal use beyond a minimum lifestyle (e.g., swimming pool) to those who can afford it while maintaining a minimum standard for all people.  It could also be used to subsidize the minimum guarantee for the rest of the population, at least for those who cannot afford even the basic cost.


Of course, the natural environment has yet to be addressed in this system.  And clearly, water for ecosystems, habitats, and species must be ensured through regulations that protect minimum instream flows, aquifer integrity, water quality, and other aspects of the environment.  Nonetheless, while we certainly have much more to do to on this front, ensuring water for the environment should not have to conflict with either recognizing access to water as a basic human right, or subjecting amounts used in commercial enterprise to the market.  Currently, when we total the percentages of water used by people, agriculture, and industry as 100%, we are simply identifying the amount withdrawn and used for human endeavor.  It in no way reflects the quantities of water left in rivers and aquifers, whether intentionally or not.  Certainly, in many parts of the world, that amount is inadequate for the needs of the environment, but that is, in part, a product of our current inefficiencies.  Yet, it is also a function of our priorities.  By enhancing efficiency and at the same time securing minimal guarantees for people everywhere, the reduced water stress would likely allow the raising of environmental priorities.


3 Responses to “Water marketing vs. human rights”

  1. Mizanur says:

    Water is a basic human right. However, when we talk about this right, most often, we only tend to consider access to drinking water, sanitation and, to a certain extent, other household requirements e.g. cooking. But, water required to produce minimum amount of food for survival is not incorporated in the current “water as human right” debate. If we consider this requirement of water to grow food, the amount of water for maintaining minimum quality of life might exceed far beyond 70 liters per day per person.

  2. Gabriel Eckstein (IWLP blogger) says:

    Thanks for your comment Mizanur. In response, I wanted to point out that according to the WHO Technical Note 9 (revised in 2005), the 70 L/person/day does include water for growing food for domestic purposes (e.g., not for commercial purposes). Nonetheless, these numbers are global averages and, clearly, in more arid climates, 70 L may not be adequate. Notwithstanding, the issue of recognizing water as a human right is, in part, a political issue because if such a right is recognized, it imposes an obligation on a nation’s government to ensure that right to its citizens. While many governments/nations might be willing to recognize a right to access some minimal amount for survival, I suspect that most will hesitate to recognize more. Between local water scarcity problems and the cost associated with “guaranteeing” fresh water (e.g., delivery and infrastructure, maintaining quality, etc.), ensuring a human right to water could impose a considerable burden. That is not to say that governments should not have such an obligation. Rather, the question is where to draw the line – how much can a government guarantee to its people before that obligation undermines its ability to ensure that guarantee?

  3. mizanur says:

    Dear Prof. Gabriel

    Thank you for your response. I fully agree with you that we should draw a line how much obligation is practically reasonable for the governments to ensure the promised water supply to its people.

    It might be interesting to note that recently The Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa
    instruct the government to ensure 42 liters/person/day free water to each poor resident of Phiri . http://www.helsinki.fi/henvi/research/scienceday09/Belinskij_16042009.pdf

    I hope the Governments will decide of its own how much water is possible to guarantee considering their own capacity/limitations- but, I am in favor of definitive quantitative guarantee like the case in Phiri, South Africa.

    Hoping for the best.