A Long Time Coming: The Human Right to Water

A Long Time Coming: The Human Right to Water

I've often daydreamed about what an alien civilization would think about Earth if they were ever to come visit, given our fractured ethnic, political, and economic planet, the epidemic violence, our ecological ignorance and mismanagement, the miserable way so many people live in poverty and misery, and our global failure to eradicate basic diseases such as cholera that simply require safe water and sanitation systems available to everyone reading this column.

Indeed, as Calvin says to Hobbes in Bill Watterson's classic cartoon, "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."

One of these global failures was the failure to acknowledge a formal human right to water. There is a formal international human right to life, to human health, to an adequate standard of living, to adequate food, and more. But until a few weeks ago, there was no formal human right to water.

There is now. On September 24th, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted a binding resolution that

"Affirms that the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity"

This declaration was a long time coming. The planet's bedrock political and civil human rights laws were put in place over 60 years ago. The United States played a leading role in formulating and supporting those laws, in line with our democratic principles, our commitment to rights, and our national character. And while there are occasional controversies over definitions, and occasional government policies that ignored or flouted these principles and rights, the US continues to be a leading voice for these rights.

Conversely, the United States has not played a leading role in, and indeed has often been in opposition to, extending human rights law into the area of social, economic, and cultural rights, even though major international covenants covering these rights were passed by the UN in the 1960s. And the US has never supported a human right to water. Until now.

More than a decade ago, I wrote a journal article on the human right to water that stated:

Access to a basic water requirement is a fundamental human right implicitly and explicitly supported by international law, declarations, and State practice... access to water can be inferred as a derivative right necessary to meet the explicit rights to health and an adequate standard of life.

And in subsequent years, discussions and negotiations expanded at the UN, in national governments, in international water meetings, and in academia about the justification for such a right and the responsibilities and duties that would accompany it. The negotiations over this right dragged on and on, with the US and a few other countries consistently opposed to extending human rights law to water. The long discussions finally ended with a General Assembly resolution in July, followed by the UN's Human Rights Council formal resolution in late September, and on September 30th, the US government (somewhat grumpily, I think, if you read their whole statement) affirmed its agreement with these resolutions. In their statement explaining their vote in favor, the US said:

The United States is proud to take the significant step of joining consensus on this important resolution regarding the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, which is to be progressively realized. The United States remains deeply committed to finding solutions to the world's water challenges. Safe drinking water and sanitation are essential to the rights of all people to an adequate standard of living, and to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

This is a first step, not a last step. Will finally acknowledging a human right to water and sanitation solve the world's water and sanitation problems? No.

But here are four reasons why it is a good idea:

  1. Acknowledging such a right will encourage the international community and individual governments to renew their efforts to meet basic human needs for water for their populations.
  2. By acknowledging such a right, pressures to translate that right into specific national and international legal obligations and responsibilities are much more likely to occur.
  3. This clear declaration will help maintain a spotlight of attention on the deplorable state of water management in many parts of the world.
  4. Finally, explicitly acknowledging a human right to water can help set specific priorities for water policy, which is often fragmented, uncoordinated, and focused on providing more water for some people, rather than some water for all people.

And there's a fifth reason: it's just the right thing to do.

What's needed now is to develop appropriate tools and mechanisms to achieve progressively the full realization of these rights, including appropriate legislation, comprehensive plans and strategies for the water sector, and financial approaches. As the UN has noted, the right to water also requires full transparency of the planning and implementation process in the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation and the active, free and meaningful participation of the concerned local communities and relevant stakeholders, including vulnerable and marginalized groups. And it is time to acknowledge that even here in the richest country of the world, there are people without access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, and to work harder to meet those needs as soon as possible.

In the end, I do not think that finally meeting basic needs for water and sanitation will occur just because there is finally a clear acceptance of a legal human right to water and rules for what governments must do to progressively realize those rights. But it is certain to help accelerate the day when safe water and sanitation are available for all. Whether anyone out there is watching or not.

Peter Gleick (cross posted from SFGate's City Brights)


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