Water is a Human Right, right?


Water is fundamental to life. This is true for all humans, without exception. It is essential that we have access to clean drinking water for our survival. Add to this the necessity of water for washing, for hygiene and sanitation to ensure that we don’t get sick or die of disease, and the case for water as a human right is compelling. Surely as a substance that every living thing on our planet relies on to survive it is a prime example of something that should be made available through commoning. Allowing everyone access and with rules in place to govern the careful use and protect the supply from contamination or depletion.

But is water a human right in law? I was surprised to discover that water doesn’t feature anywhere in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the 1948 UN document considered the basis of universal human rights. It seemed like such an obvious “right”, I had always assumed it would be there, perhaps right after the right to shelter. In fact, there is a long running debate at all levels, up to the that of the United Nations as to whether water is a human right, or a need. You can find more on the history of this here.

It wasn’t until very recently in 2010 that the UN passed a resolution confirm water’s status as a right and not a need.

So why the contoversy? Between needs and rights is a simple but important distinction. If something is a need, then it can be treated as a commodity. Access rights can be sold, profits can be made. Unsurprisingly, those parties who have argued against treating water as a human right have been those who sought to profit from the sale of water supplies; whether through the management of local water supplies or through syphoning off water for bottling.

The argument for water as a need ties to the desire to commodify water and profit from its sale. Transnational corporations such as Nestle have been heavily involved in lobbying against treating water as a human right. This argument always invokes the idea of “the tragedy of the commons”, without assigning water a market value, a price, then there is no way to control access – to ensure distribution to those without, to protect supplies. Without paying for it, each individual would run amuck, consuming as much as they liked and more than they needed, until we were left with nothing.

Here is a video of former Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck making exactly this argument. Skip ahead to 2.30 if you’re short of time to hear his rationale for why considering water a human right is an “extreme” view.

In this same video Brabeck argues that the only way to ensure that the poorest have access to water is to privatize and ensure that companies like Nestle provide services for the poor. Fine in principle, but unsurprisingly the evidence of what actually happens does not support his claims.

Take for example the village of the village of Bhati Dilwan, Pakistan, situated close to a Nestle water bottling plant. Nestle’s syphoning of deep water supplies has caused the existing water infrastructure in the local area to fail. Residents in Bhati Dilwan saw their wells dry up and vulnerable people start to fall ill as what little remained dropped in quality. Rather than ensure that water was provided to those in need, the company has created a greater need by destroying an existing water supply system and leaving people dependent on their expensive bottled alternatives.

This is only one of many examples of market interests working against human interests. So how can we be in a situation where the market value of an essential component for all life is treated as a commodity when it clearly doesn’t work? Where does the certainty that the market solution is the only solution come from, when evidence contradicts it?

I think in this case the real tragedy of the commons is that the very idea of the commons are often dismissed as a solution to water management and distribution for all.




5 Responses to “Water is a Human Right, right?”

  1. mundurugertrude Says:

    In my opinion,there is no way privatization of water to provide services for the poor is the problem its self. Because the Companies like Nestle will never help the poor since they are working for profit and the local communities especially the poor villages will not even afford to have what should be a right.

    Water is a subtractable commons so if one person siphons more then others will obviously not have access in the long run. Looking at the example of the village of Bhati Dilwan, Pakistan and even many others from Africa where even the Wells that has survived the communities begins to dry up. Where is the service they say they are offering?

    To me the best solution is for the governments to empower and support communities in building their own wells and other suitable water points that suits their needs.For example, the farmer communities are guided on how to build drinking water points and another source for the animals and irrigation.This way,the communities will own the resource management and even regulate the use of it. if there is need to contribute towards the maintenance,the community can agree on it mutually bearing in mind the economic status and how much a person uses.

    This may look quite unrealistic in urban areas like London where people do not share with their neighbors but it can work perfectly in many rural communities that have the real water problems.

    Maybe for urban areas, the government can set free public water tapes for people to drink from. There is a saying in my local culture that ‘ You will not know the importance of your buttocks until there are boils on it’. Referring to this,many capitalist minded people look at water in terms of profit because they have never been in that position of having no access to it. So Water is really a human right.

  2. u1059279 Says:

    I strongly agreed that water is a common as it is a natural resources.It should not be privatize,it should be done in the interest of the communities and at lower rate for management.We spending so much on water rate in urban areas than the rural.This same capitalist are responsible for the drying up of wells in Africa for their illicit mining on resources.Water is life so people should be allow the right to it not privilege.

  3. sdiederichs Says:

    This is a great post!
    I also believe that water is a commons and all living organisms have to share it. But it is no point in complaining and putting the blame on governments and multinationals. Multinationals do what they are supposed to do, which is short-term profit. They are not in it for long-term sustainability really, because the day the business dries up in a country, they will move to another country. We have already seen how they perceive the workforce. It is another resource, another commodity and who can blame them? It is their “raison d’etre”. Governments on the other side are responsible for their citizens. Before allowing multinationals to come and mine or install a factory, they should research the impact that it is going to have on the local population. And if they don’t do this, then communities should take the relay and fight for their access to resources which ultimately guarantees their freedom. We have seen how those movements were successful in South America, there is no reason why this can’t happen in Pakistan or Africa. I wanted to post a picture here which is a quote from Buzz Aldrin, but I will post it separately.

    • peterezekiel Says:

      I take your point, multinational companies exist to make a profit. However, I don’t think that we should accept this as the natural order. Companies don’t have to behave like this. After all, a company is made up of individual humans who are capable of thought. They should also start to look at the long-view. Without adequate access to clean water, every company is going to suffer. It is incredibly short-sighted for them to think otherwise.

      As consumers, we have the ability to force companies to behave in a way that we see as more acceptable. Though getting enough people to come with you to make your campaign effective is certainly a challenge!

      Another route is corporate social responsibility. This isn’t something I am willing to put my faith in to heal our world just yet, but it really is in its early days. Here’s an article I came across at work which shows a few cases where more substantial changes in corporate practice have started to emerge:


  4. bay222013 Says:

    I came across an article on the guardian about ‘ the real threat to peak water’. The writer is concern about peak water which poses a real threat to human survival as water is irreplaceable. Unlike peak fossil fuel, which has alternatives such as the various renewable energies, wind mills/turbines, solar, biomass and gas etc, water has no substitute and can not be renewed. It is frightening to know that humans can be extinct if all water reserves are exhausted due by our insatiable quest for more and more consumer goods, the production of which waste tones of water. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen in the Middle East have reduced their irrigation farming of grains due low water reserves. Every continent in the world is experiencing reduction in water reserve, which is attributed to excessive water use, coupled with inconsistent rain fall, a possible consequence of climate change.
    It is therefore sad to hear Nestle CEO talk on that video as if the company own the natural resource, water. It is not surprising though, as a capitalist, his main motive in business is for profit, whether that results in human suffering or not. Of what use is improved service of water delivery to the people if they can not afford it. I hope that UN take radical steps to enforce that declaration of water being a human right and not just rhetoric.
    The one hour lecture last Monday about efficient toilets provision by FINISH in India got me thinking serious about how we waste water generally, specially flushing of toilets. I feel reluctant to flush toilet now after urinating, only my house will soon be smelly, lol!

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