THE BLOG

A Human Right to Water: A Wave Forward

02/10/2015 11:49 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
Joshua Lott via Getty Images

World leaders at the Davos World Economic Forum last month identified the scarcity of water as the leading threat facing the world over the next decade.

Roughly 750 million people around the world lack access to clean water. In addition, more than 300 million people die each year from diseases related to unsafe water. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia lose 5 percent to 6 percent of their gross domestic products each year because they lack safe water and sanitation. For women and children, problems stemming from lack of access to water or poor water infrastructure are magnified further -- globally, they spend 140 million hours every day collecting water. In many places, women and children are at risk of violent attack when they journey to collect water.

These harsh realities fly in the face of the fact that there is sufficient water to satisfy needs in every country. The problem is much more about equitable distribution. Overall, household water consumption accounts for only 10 percent of total water use in the world, while industry and agriculture are the largest water users.

For advocates searching for solutions to the world water crisis and to equitable economic development, the global recognition of access to water as a human right is part of the answer. Recognizing access to water as a human right means this is no longer an issue of charity. Individuals are rights-holders and governments have obligations that must be met. Of course, defining any human right is a daunting task. The complexities when dealing with water are inevitable. Yet, denying people water is also tantamount to denying them the right to life.

The philosophical basis for a human right to water begins with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 3 that, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." It also states in Article 25 that, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family," an assertion reiterated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In 2010, the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation. The United Nations has a special expert appointed by the Human Rights Council on the topic--a Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. In addition, roughly 30 countries have a constitutional or legal provision ensuring individuals' access to water. In South Africa, for example, the right to access sufficient water is enshrined in the constitution.

Yet, a human right to water remains controversial. A number of countries, including the U.S., worked against a key United Nations 2010 General Assembly resolution relating to the right to water, out of fear that it would obligate them to share their water resources with other countries. Other nations and interests would rather have access to water articulated as a basic need -- or even a commodity -- rather than a right.

Without delving into intricacies of the evolution of global human rights law associated with the human right to water, it is clear that this framework requires a focus on the most marginalized and disadvantaged communities as well as an emphasis on participation, empowerment and transparency. It is no secret that access to water unduly affects the poor, even in the U.S. In 2013, the U.S. Conference of Mayors stated that costs of building and maintaining water and wastewater infrastructure have been "borne disproportionately by households with low, moderate or fixed incomes through increased user rates."

The human right to water raises a myriad of other issues. Chief amongst them are: What is the role of government? Do states have to provide services free of charge? Aren't costs going to be prohibitive?

The emerging international consensus is that "Human rights do not require States to directly provide individuals with water and sanitation. Their primary obligation is to create "an environment conducive to the realisation of human rights." Only in certain limited situations, such as a disaster, when people for reasons beyond their control are unable to access water and sanitation is a nation obliged to provide services. Nor is water required to be provided free of charge. In general, water should be accessible, affordable and safe for consumption.

Recent events have further catalyzed discussions around the human rights to water.

In 2013, in Zimbabwe's capitol city of Harare, residents had limited access to clean water and sanitation services, forcing them to drink from shallow wells contaminated with sewage. The government disconnected scores of residents from water supplies for being unable to pay -- even when they were being charged for sporadic service.

More recently, in Haiti, more than three-quarters of schools lack access to water, increasing the risks of water-borne diseases and lessening time the country's students spend in school.

In the U.S., water problems arose in March 2014 in Detroit. After the City Council approved an 8.7 percent increase in water rates -- which brought prices to almost double the U.S. average -- the city began to shut off water to residents who were more than 60 days behind on their payments or owed more than $150. Residents filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the city. The judge presiding over the case held that although water is necessary to sustaining life, residents had no enforceable right to water.

Human Rights Watch has called attention to each of these issues. They described the situation in Detroit as being "out of step with the emerging international consensus on the human right to water." In the case of Detroit, Human Rights Watch stated "while international law does not require that governments provide water for "free"--utility services must of course be able to cover costs -- United Nations expert bodies have established that water should be affordable." In the case of Zimbabwe, they have argued that government should invest in low-cost water and sanitation infrastructure. "A sliding fee scale for municipal water should be put in place," they said, "to provide affordable water for low-income families, and no home should be disconnected from the city water supply for lack of payment."

We all know that water is necessary for a green planet, sustainable economic growth and the eradication of poverty. Halving the number of individuals without access to water was listed as a target of global development goals reflected in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Although the next set of development goals has not been finalized yet, experts at the United Nations have recommended that achieving universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene should be included in this plan.

Given that life as we know it cannot exist without water, we are all challenged to be part of the solution to ensure at least access to affordable water for all. Water should never be regarded as the privilege of the few.