Archive for the ‘Water and Economics’ Category

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

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

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.

Water marketing vs. human rights

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

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.