The voices championing a human right to water seem to be getting louder, and many national governments are being openly chastised for a lack of leadership, vision, and responsibility (see, e.g., PLOS Medicine’s editorial declaring “Clean Water Should Be Recognized as a Human Right”; the Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick’s article on The Human Right to Water; Maude Barlow’s “A UN Convention on the Right to Water An Idea Whose Time Has Come”). At the World Water Forum held this past March in Turkey, for example, more than 20 countries challenged the Ministerial Declaration for failing to define water as a human right and opting instead to describe water as a human need (see Council of Canadian press release). Yet, countries like the United States are holding steadfast that “there is at present no internationally agreed right to water or human right to water, and there is no consensus on what such a right would encompass” (see ENN Article).
Why do governments – such as those of the United States, the European Union, Brazil, Canada, and Egypt (see ENN Article) – oppose the notion of a human right to water? What is it about such a right that contravenes so many countries’ national interests?
Is it a concern that fresh water resources would be squandered under governmental control, or the corollary ideology that the private sector could provide water to the masses more effectively than any governmental scheme? This is the justification espoused by many non-governmental opponents of the human right to water who typically commend the virtues of the free market and private sector for managing the world’s fresh water resources (see, e.g., the work of Fredrik Segerfeldt here and here, articles in The Economist here and here, and an article by Fortune Magazine’s Marc Gunther writing for The Huffington Post here).
According to the US position:
“Establishing an international right to anything raises a number of complicated issues regarding the nature of that right, how that right would be enforced, and which parties would bear responsibility for ensuring these rights are met … To date, there have been no formal intergovernmental discussions on these issues. It would therefore be premature to agree to such a right” (see ENN Article).
To a large extent, this sounds more of an academic or procedural debate rather than a substantive national concern. And as strenuously as it is asserted by countries like the US, its tone rings more of pretext rather than of meaningful explanation.
While there is much to be said about pursuing the formalities of international law, I suspect that governmental trepidation over a human right to water is based on a more elemental concern. Nations and governments are likely troubled by the responsibility and liability that would be associated with a human right to water. In other words, they are afraid to fail; afraid of being accountable if they fall short of the obligation that would accompany a right to water. Given the enormity of the problem, though, that may be an understandable concern. According to a 2008 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), there are some 884 million people globally without access to clean drinking water and more than 2.5 billion who lack access to minimal sanitation services, all of which results in millions of deaths every year directly attributable to these deficiencies. These are staggering numbers, numbers that many governments might want to sweep under the rug. And the US is no exception – in 2000, there were nearly two million people without access to basic water and sanitation services (see the report by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership).
The concern, however, is probably also propelled by the projected costs associated with ensuring clean and safe water for everyone globally. According to a study in the WHO’s Bulletin, the cost of attaining the Millennium Development Goals (adopted in 2000) for water and sanitation (to “halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”) would require the world community to invest some US$70 billion annually between 2005 and 2014. Considering the principle of diminishing marginal returns, the cost of guaranteeing clean and safe water for everyone on the planet would likely be far more than double that figure.
Recognizing and ensuring a right to water will certainly not be an easy undertaking. There are likely to be considerable social and political costs, as well as economic ones. Nonetheless, upholding a human right to water may actually be in the best interests of nations and governments around the world. As an issue of responsibility, many nations – in both the developed and developing worlds – already guarantee human, civil, and social rights and entitlements that impose considerable obligations on their governments, from public health guarantees to worker protections to lifeline utility rates. And all too often, these nations (including those in Europe and the United States) find themselves short of the mark. Yet, these regimes face their failures, often by the strength of their citizenry, and they endure. And in the ultimate calculus of social development, they are better off for it, for that is the essence of democracy.
Moreover, implementing and enforcing a human right to water could actually yield considerable economic advantages. According to Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations attached to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, the return on investments in proper sanitation alone may be as high as 9 to 1 (see statement of de Albuquerque). These include benefits associated with improved human health and reduced public health care expenses, improved worker productivity, and more stable markets. A similar appraisal of expanding fresh water availability to those without would likely reveal analogous returns on investment.
Although the notion of a human right to water seems so fundamental and instinctive, the fact that we debate its existence often seems inimical to our own existence. Yet, in most of our communities and nations, we consider life extraordinary and deserving of protection, at least from the vagaries of human action. If each human life is so singular and so vital, the debate over the human right to water should focus on how best to achieve the right rather than on the fallibility of government to succeed in its implementation; it should address the issues of costs and compliance with such a right rather than its theoretical existence or absence; it should consider the implications of a right to water for countries’ national interests and objectives rather than the niceties of international law.
While certainly a cliché, water truly is life. For without water, life as we know it cannot exist. It is time that governments and nations reassess their national interests, face their responsibilities to their peoples, and think seriously about a human right to water.
See also my prior post on Water Marketing v. Human Rights.