The Human Right to Water in Latin America

The following essay by Anna Berti Suman is a summary of her recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears in Vol. 3(2) 2018, pp. 1-94, of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law. Ms. Berti Suman is a PhD Researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society (TILT) at Tilburg University in The Netherlands. She can be reached at A.BertiSuman [at] uvt.nl.

The right to water (RtW) is a key factor both shaping and shaped by the social, political, and economic arena of a country. Often, conflicting interests are at stake when water governance is addressed. A large and heterogeneous number of governance solutions have been proposed with the aim of balancing the interests of civic society and the private sector, as well as respect for the environment and public finance concerns. The main aim of this monograph is to illustrate and analyze lessons from Latin America contributing to the international debate on the governance of the RtW. The attention is specifically focused on questioning the role that each stakeholder should have in the water debate with a view to harmonizing the RtW with the interests of the concerned stakeholders.

Water, as a shared resource, calls for a transboundary approach. Various forms of cooperation and association among the global community are discussed as, for example, the World Water Forum organized by the World Water Council, and the Global Water Partnership. Relevant treaties, such as the 1992 UN Helsinki Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, demonstrate the importance of cross-sectorial and multi-level cooperation in addressing water governance challenges.

Demonstrations during the ‘Water War’ in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which occurred December 1999 – April 2000.

Subsequently, the monograph proceeds in a preliminary and indispensable discussion on the dual nature of water, as an indispensable source of life and as an economic good, thereby acknowledging that water has been recognized as a social good and a human need, as well as a commodity. Its economic value will be inspected through the analysis of the debate ongoing at the international and national levels. A remarkable example of this double nature is identified in the Chilean legal framework for water, where two texts provide for the rights of private citizens over water (granted by the 1980 Constitution and the 1981 Water Code) and for water as a national property for public use (as stated by the 1981 Water Code; the Constitution lacks a similar provision). The economic value of water is also approached from the international perspective, as enshrined in the 1992 Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development.

The monograph next delves into local scenarios and inspects the transposition of RtW in constitutional laws of Latin American countries and its interplay with water management systems. Part A investigates the broader  discussion in Latin America on the responsibility of the state towards the right to water, when recognized in constitution and when acknowledged through different legal tools. It also considers whether the state has a duty to grant a quantitative and qualitative minimum of fresh water to everyone, even if through subsidies or by impinging on private interests. The consequences of a state’s decision-making process that does not take into account the RtW are illustrated through three case studies, the participatory case of Porto Alegre, Brazil, and two cases of conflicts over water management, namely the case of the Matanza-Riachuelo River Basin, Argentina, and the case of Cochabamba, Bolivia.

The cases presented in Part A serve to illustrate the limits of the law in resolving water management issues. The discussion also examines the judicial system under the analytical lens of its suitability to settle water disputes. Overall, Part A stresses the need to focus the water debate on specific issues rather than on general statements.

The linking element bridging the transition from Part A to Part B is the discussion of whether the right to water as a human right is in antithesis to privatization. Part B considers the main Latin American water management systems, with their advantages and disadvantages, and compares them with European legal frameworks. In principle, the analysis suggests that the recognition of water as a human right does not prevent the privatization of the service, as long as the state monitors the private provider’s operations and complies with its obligations to ensure the RtW.

Participatory budgeting including water issues in Porto Alegre – Brazil

Part C provides a specific insight into the relationship between the market and the RtW in the context of Chile’s highly privatized water framework. The Chilean case offers an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the engagement of all affected stakeholders in the water debate as well as on the need for a wise compromise among them.

In the Conclusion, the lessons learnt from Latin America are summarized. The limits of the law in resolving water conflicts, and the disconnection of water issues from the adopted legal framework, are outlined to demonstrate the mismatch between the legal framework and the reality of water challenges. While it is not possible to identify the ‘best’ water management model, the analysis affirms the general need for a focus on the specificities of each river basin unit. The final message presented is that recognition of water as a human right does not prevent the possibility of privatizing the service if the state fulfills its obligations toward the right to water. Ultimately, the engagement of all affected stakeholders in the debate over water can facilitate constructive and open-minded compromises for jointly facing water challenges.

 

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