Why do so many governments oppose a human right to water?

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.

11 Responses to “Why do so many governments oppose a human right to water?”

  1. Peter Gleick says:

    Excellent column, thank you. I agree that one of the rationales offered for rejecting the idea is the concern that governments would be held accountable (violating human rights???!!!) for failing to provide safe water and adequate sanitation.

    I consider this argument to be a smokescreen. Anyone familiar with the real arguments over economic and social rights knows that the “responsibility” part is that governments must progressively work to ensure that such rights are met; they are not held to be “violating” such rights when access to food or water is not available (unless they are actively withholding these resources for political purposes, which IS a violation of human rights). General Comment 15 was quite clear about this.

    Would acceptance of a human right to water cast a spotlight on those regions, countries, and governments that don’t meet basic human needs for water now? Sure. But that can only be a good thing in my mind.

    Finally, I think the argument described in the early quote from the US position (“it would be premature to agree to such a right”) is specious. I think that international law, interpretation of existing Covenants, and other rights agreements already clearly guarantee a human right to water. I laid out this argument in my 1999 paper in the journal Water Policy (you can find it here: http://www.pacinst.org/reports/basic_water_needs/human_right_to_water.pdf). Whether or not the US or any other country “agrees” doesn’t mean such a right doesn’t exist. It only means no efforts are going to be taken to protect and insure such rights, which is a global travesty.

    Peter Gleick

  2. cheyenne nimes says:

    I read this somewhere, “part IV of the General Comment deals with potential violations of the right to water. To demonstrate compliance with their general & specific obligations State parties must establish that they have taken the necessary & feasible steps toward the realization of the right to water. In accordance with international law, a failure to act in good faith to take such steps amounts to a violation of the right. While distinguishing the inability from the unwillingness of a State party to comply with its obligations, the Comment identified two main types of violation:

    Acts of commission: the direct actions of States parties or other entities insufficiently regulated by States, and
    Acts of omission, including the failure to take appropriate steps toward the full realization of everyone’s right to water & the failure to have a national policy on water.”

    I guess I’m still unclear on how & why States are getting away with & seemingly will continue to get away with upholding these violations. I like what Mr. Gleick said about the right to water existing even in the face of lack of recognition or action toward such.

    Thank you,

    Cheyenne Nimes
    MFA Candidate
    University of Iowa
    Thesis: Water Rights
    i hope there were no typos; wrote this on iphone.

  3. Gabriel Eckstein (IWLP blogger) says:

    Thanks Peter for your very insightful comments. I agree that the state violation and accountability argument is specious. I suspect, though, that governments continue to hide behind such justifications because they do not understand economic and social rights or how their realization should be judged. As you suggest, “the ‘responsibility’ part is that governments must progressively work to ensure that such rights are met.” What this means is that such rights are gauged on a due diligence standard. In other words, the government must make best efforts, based on its resources and abilities, to achieve and ensure the right. And where such efforts are made, but are unsuccessful, the government incurs no liability.
    It will be interesting to see how California proceeds with such a right if AB1242 is passed. This is California’s “Human Right to Water Act of 2009, which last I heard, was making its way through state senate committees. Any update on this effort, Peter?
    Readers can find a brief summary of the bill here.

  4. Gabriel Eckstein (IWLP blogger) says:

    Thanks for your great comments, Cheyenne, and for the quote you provided. I believe it comes from the website of the World Water Council and is intended to be an interpretation of General Comment No. 15 of the U.N. Economic and Social Council. Following up on my response to Peter’s comments, parag. 41 of the General Comment notes that for purposes of establishing liability, it is necessary to differentiate between inability and unwillingness to comply. While the former incurs no liability, the latter is a clear violation of the right to water.

    As for your questions on “how & why States are getting away with & seemingly will continue to get away with upholding these violations,” that unfortunately is a function of our international system of state relations. Under the system, state sovereignty is paramount, and only grave violations of non-derogable obligations (obligations from which the international community has deemed that states cannot derogate) can elicit international enforcement action. So far, the main non-derogable state obligations that have been accepted by the international community fall under the rubric of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Human rights, which are supposed to be non-derogable, do not seem to justify international intervention unless it is shown that the degree of violation becomes grave. Where that line lies is open to great debate, although, it seems to lie somewhere between the ongoing situation in China with its Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other minorities (not grave enough), and the situation in Darfur (for which the Sudanese president has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, albeit for war crimes and not human rights violations).

    Even if a human right to water became formally recognized by the US and other nations, as it is now, enforcement will continue to be a major hurdle.

  5. cheyenne nimes says:

    Thank you, Admin (forgive me, I don’t know you name- Terry?), that was informative.
    It makes me think of a 3rd scenario; short of war crime or egregious treatment, it seems there needs to be an additional situation covered. Kind of thinking outside the construct as it is at present. Because if over a full third of the world’s population has lack of access to clean water & sanitation, the body count is the same no matter the cause or justification. The end result is still fatality. And one has to wonder where the ethical line gets drawn- & who draws it. Do these countries say oh, not so bad if we lose 10 ppl a day, or 100, or 100,000… if the only ones left standing are the ones with water it’s still a crime & if ppl are dying, greed & control of vital resource is a type of war. It seems like those in power will never give it up voluntarily, so sanctions should be happening that affect the leaders as directly as possible, & not the ppl without resources.

    I read an eye-opening column or whatever this week by someone named Derrick Jensen- I think it was in this month’s Orion. He talked about power systems & water & the last line reads, “We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront & take down those systems.” I have to wonder if history bears this out & what it might mean as the demand for water doubles every 21 years (i don’t know if that stat is valid).

    Thanks again for your time. This is inspiring. I might start a blog on water & rivers.

  6. Bo Appelgren says:

    Excellent discussion, thanks. Several contributions have touched upon obvious reality aspects that could support water as a human right, or not at the domestic level of: (1) socio-economic drivers and conditioners for action and intervention; and (2) the non-capacity of governments to acknowledge the right and undertake the rather precise and well defined responsibility ( as opposed to other equally costly social political commitments of governments ; e.g. national health care and education to secure water supplies and sanitation for all, including the allocation, sustainable utilization and protection of the fresh- and costal water resources and dependent ecosystems, and related environmental restrictions for national economic development goals including agriculture and food production and economic growth (3) drive the development and largely decide the evolution. (4) With high hydrological and policy uncertainty in international water resources management, governments are even less prepared to secure the right to water across the international borders. Unfortunately the call for ethics of water for all, based on solidarity as well as a necessity for long term economic development is not practical and implementable in the shorter political time perspective. In conclusion the bilateral discussions are generally focused on shorter term socio-economic issues and there is a long standing call to consider socio-economic drivers, and institutions at national levels and the opportunities in transboundary water resources management. This reflects the opportunity to introduce economic water management, as a closely related tool to achieve ethical goals and solidarity for equity.

  7. cheyenne nimes says:

    One stat has 263 rivers & other defined aquifers that either cross or demarcate int’l political boundaries & 90 percent of countries in the world must share hto basins with minimum 1 or 2 other states. I also read conflcting accounts on the relevancy of this to water conflict. That there have been relatively few incidents vs pretty much every war ever staged has been re water. I was thinking more along the lines of Gov’s having laws& othics & allocation mgmt ‘together’ in order to get people water. But then, why should other countries be expected when we can’t let the Rio Grande water 2 countries w/o conflict? I was shocked to read about the Cononias. And the Rapanos disaster re the Santa Cruz river (which as all know played out ok in the end). The US certainly has our own issues (incl. no ‘lifeline’ water rates/supply like we have for utilities, food banks, etc.

    I guess ethically I think if hto were the priority of those in power- let’s say for whatever reason they suddenly ran out of water for their lattes- I’m absolutely certain any kind of legislature, water divining, or standing under the last spigot or meter reader would be real fast. It’s the fact they simply don’t- I’ll say it- care- about their fellow humans that 5 times as many kids, for instance, die of water-related issues than aids/hiv. Yet a vaccine is ‘sexy’ – & makes drug co’s rich. Saving ppl from dying of dehydration isn’t going to line the leaders’ pockets anytime soon.

    Lastly, while I know these are complicated issues that take time to resolve I also think, as we’ve been on earth however many millenia, we’ve had enough time to figure out ethically it’s ‘bad’ when fellow humans die, & we’ve had the wherewithitall to solve far more complicated issues- gene splicing, space probes, et al., so really, it’s human resistance that’s the problem. Greed, hatred, & delusion, as the Buddhists say. I’m just a writer & new at researching all this but I’m still not getting how & why over a third of folks get virtually nothing when there is more than enough for that third. I read in the book This Will Kill You just how gnarly dying of dehydration is… even one’s brain shrinks inside ones head. –thank you

  8. Cheyenne, all I can say regarding the “body count” is you can thank Hugo Grotius and his disciples for our system of international law and relationship. Under the system, there is no obligation to help your fellow human or country. In fact, unless the government explicitly invites assistance from outside, the rule of sovereignty is paramount – you cannot force a country to accept your aid. And few countries have been willing to ask for direct assistance because of the appearance that such requests disgraces the government’s authority and right to rule.

    As for international law, the only rules related to water apply to countries that are riparian to the same transboundary waters. While most nations have abandoned the traditional notions – absolute territorial sovereignty (the right to do anything with the water in your territory regardless of the downstream impacts, which was championed by upstream states) and absolute territorial integrity (the right to receive the full natural flow from upstream states without any diminishment, which obviously which was championed by downstream states) – the prevailing rule today is that of equitable and reasonable utilization (riparian state are entitled to obtain an equitable share of the benefits of a transboundary river/aquifer and to the reasonable use of that water body). But none of these rules really address the human rights conundrum facing many water scare regions.

    Regarding the Jensen opinion you mentioned, I do not necessarily agree with Jensen’s premise that all of the world’s ills are the fault of the power elites or that the solution is to “take down” the current system. I agree, however, that the current system needs a major overhaul and believe that the working the system is a better path than anarchy. Also, I do need to correct Jensen’s slight exaggerations: while agriculture does take 90% of water in a number of developing countries, the global average is 70%, while the global averages for industrial use and human consumption (for domestic use and sanitation) are approximately 20% and 10% respectively (you can find a neat graph of water withdrawals and use rates here; see also The United Nations World Water Development Report 3: Water in a Changing World (2009) at pp. 99 and 106, which you can download here).

    Let us know if you do start a blog on water & rivers. The more people become concerned, informed, and involved, the better a legacy we will leave for our children.

    Lastly, thanks for letting me know about the anonymity in my postings. I need to correct this in the blog software. Your humble IWLP servant is Gabriel Eckstein.

  9. Hi Bo. Its great to hear from you. Thanks for your insightful comments. I agree that economic-based water management tools could be introduced as means of achieving ethical goals and solidarity. As I have indicated previously in my posting on water markets and human rights, I do believe that the market can have a productive role in managing water resources. That role, however, should be implemented in conjunction with a mechanism that, where possible (e.g., based on the availability of water resources), guarantees a minimum quantity of water for, at least, basic subsistence. Given that on average, 90% of global water withdrawals are used by the agricultural and industrial sectors while no more than 10% are used for human consumption and sanitation, most nations should be able to allocate adequate water supplies to meet basic human needs. They then could implement a tiered pricing system for uses beyond that minimum amount that could even be used to subsidize the minimum guarantee for the rest of the population, at least for those who cannot afford even the basic cost.

  10. Hi Gabriel

    This has all been such great info. & quite helpful, & I really want to thank you. These are things I haven’t read about so haven’t been able to consider.

    “And few countries have been willing to ask for direct assistance because of the appearance that such requests disgraces the government’s authority and right to rule.” I know that culturally certain things are no no’s. It seems opening ppl’s hearts to accept human life is a greater good than so-called losing face politically; that changing ppl’s reasoning has a ways to go. I actually had absolutely no idea things were as they are until I started writing about rivers a year ago- was astounded so many people have no water & that rivers are in the state they’re in.

    And I know the whole armchair revolutionary is all good & well as I sit at my desk, with gallons of fresh, distilled water on the floor next to me. I did wonder about Jensen’s 90% stat.

    Anyway, I started a blog, though all –italics– on the thesis writings got –lost (& that makes a huge difference in the work). I’ll figure out how to post links soon, stuff like that. So here’s the address: http://strangeh2os.wordpress.com/page/2/ The writing on rivers on page 2 my thesis advisors like the most, mainly semi-sarcastic writing on rivers in America. All work is draft form.

    If anyone has a specific river they want me to write on, please feel free to contact me. & I’m a fellow at the University of Iowa, & at the museum here, giving a public reading at the Old Capitol Bldg. on rivers Sept. 24, 7pm if anyone’s in the area.

    Thanks again,

  11. Jane says:


    Joining the discussion a little late, but just wanted to follow up on something that Cheyenne said. You mentioned the idea of water and dehydration not being “sexy” enough to get the attention it deserves. Your comment reminded me of a video I just saw about water’s less “sexy” cousin sanitation (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tA6X2QUo0XA) posted recently by an EWB-Canada volunteer working in Zambia.

    Keep fighting the good fight.