Pulitzer Center Update

UN Resolution Declares Water a Human Right but Leaves Implications Vague


A Bangladeshi girl retrieving water. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard.

In anticipation of the UN Millennium Development Summit in September, the United Nations General Assembly made an astonishing and historic declaration last week. They identified "the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights." The declaration of water as a human right passed with 122 votes in favor of the resolution and 41 abstentions. There were no opposing votes.

It would be difficult to oppose the idea that water is a human right. The concept is so fundamental that it underpins many other UN resolutions and conventions from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child. It almost goes without saying. But if the General Assembly were just stating the obvious in this declaration, why were there even abstentions?

John F. Sammis, U.S. Minister Counselor to the Economic and Social Council explained the U.S. decision to abstain from the vote to the General Assembly. He complained that the declaration was an ill conceived "short-cut" that hindered efforts already underway at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to form "a more inclusive, considered, and deliberative approach to these vital issues." The Geneva process, he suggested, was giving more careful consideration to "the legal implications of a declared right to water."

In spite of his concerns, however, the UN Human Rights Council's Independent Expert Catarina de Albuquerque, who heads the process, spoke in favor of the declaration. In a statement issued after the vote on water as a human right occurred, she called it a "breakthrough" and "a positive signal from the international community" adding that now "all stakeholders … have to move from words to action and that all face a greater responsibility in making the right a reality for the billions who still do not have access to water and sanitation."

While Sammis criticizes the declaration for lacking precise legal parameters and de Albuquerque heralds it as a powerful symbolic gesture, other stakeholders in the water justice debate mirror their reactions. At the heart of the matter is the question of how to regulate the "business" of water which can include the buying, selling and trading of water as a commodity; the use of water for commercial, industrial and agricultural purposes; the provision of and access to water services for individuals, households and communities; and the removal and treatment of wastewater.

Though no one denies the human right to water, those who favor the market's ability to regulate supply and demand argue that "free" or cheap water encourages waste. In the U.S., for example, where water is relatively plentiful and water delivery and removal systems are subsidized, the price of water generally does not reflect what it could be worth if it were a commodity available for trade on the international market. In that case, its value would encourage conservation.

But global health and human rights experts are concerned that more than 1 in 6 people worldwide do not have adequate water for drinking, cooking and cleaning, and 2.5 billion people lack sanitation services of any kind. As a result, 1.8 million people die of diarrheal diseases every year with 90% of those deaths in developing countries occurring in children under 5. A market-based water economy, these experts argue, would only exacerbate the inequities faced by populations living with dire poverty, poor infrastructure, and political instability.

It's possible that some middle ground can be reached with the careful deliberation Sammis hopes to achieve in the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Even though the human population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 increasing the demands for freshwater, the domestic use of water only comprises a relatively small percentage of total water withdrawal (currently about 10%). Most of the world's freshwater is used in agriculture and industry. Establishing legal parameters and providing regulations and oversight for the use of water in commercial operations is necessary. But declaring water a human right may also be necessary in order to protect water, first and foremost, as a public trust.

It may also be necessary, as de Albuquerque suggests, to motivate the UN and its partners in the global community to address water and particularly sanitation issues in the upcoming Millennium Development Goals Summit in September.

In the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the importance of regulation and oversight of businesses that can potentially harm an environment shared by all has become evident. The UN has not yet declared that every human has the right to a clean environment. Nor has it asserted, as the constitution of Ecuador does, that the environment itself has rights. But the General Assembly's albeit symbolic gesture to declare water a human right is part of a continued effort to identify, articulate and protect the priceless conditions that make all human life not just tolerable but possible.

To learn more about the global water and sanitation crisis visit Downstream on the Pulitzer Center website where you can find reporting from East Africa on the market approach to sanitation and a hydroelectric dam that caused protests over water as a human right. Compare the water injustice in Delhi with a similar situation in Nairobi. And find articles on water shortage, disappearing glaciers, climate change and more.