22 Mar 2010

Water and human rights -- part 1

This post is one of ten in the serialization of my paper on human rights, which is introduced here.


Ask anyone if there is (or should be) a human right to water, and most will say yes. Tell them that millions die each year for lack of access to clean and affordable water, and their support for a human right will increase; they may even become agitated, pressing you to tell them what they can do. What, indeed, can they do? Will a petition fix the problem? Will money? Will political pressure? Will a constitutional right to water save lives? Maybe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (1948) should be amended to include a 31st Article that says:
Everyone has the right to clean and accessible water, adequate for the health and well-being of the individual and family, and no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance. —article31.org
What if Article 31 was approved by the United Nations? What would happen? Would anything change? Would fewer people die? Perhaps, but probably not, and that is because a promise of clean affordable water does not necessarily lead to its delivery.

Although people have been debating these questions and this topic for many years, the debate over the provision of adequate clean water has been sharpening in recent years, under the twin pressures of increasing demand (from population and a hotter earth) and a shrinking/destabilizing supply (from climate change, pollution and creaking infrastructure). The citizens of Nigeria have a right to water, but Lagos is currently recognized for having the worst water supply system in the world — 95 percent of the water pumped into the distribution system is lost to leaks, theft or non-payment. In late 2009, California’s governor Schwarzenegger vetoed AB 1242, a bill passed by the Legislature that would have made “clean and affordable" water a goal of statutory policy. In September 2008, the Economist held an online debate (“This house believes that water, as a scarce resource, should be priced according to its market value") in which the winning side — by popular vote — supported the negative. The trouble with this result is that it creates an expectation that cannot be delivered. How can we manage a scarce resource that everybody “needs" without using price rationing? Scarcity requires some form of rationing, to allocate too little supply among too much demand. If prices cannot be used, then what method will work? Who will decide who gets more and who gets less? What non-price measure will they use? Good intentions do not necessarily lead to good results.

This paper aims to deliver results — more people with access to clean, affordable water. It begins with a simple fact — a citizen’s human right in water will not be delivered unless someone pays for it — and recommends a solution that turns this weakness upside-down: Give every citizen a property right in water. With this right, a share in the nation’s water supply, we meet each citizen’s human rights needs while — this detail is critical — ensuring that they have enough money to pay for delivery of that water, money that they can get by marketing their excess water to those who want it for economic uses.

In tomorrow's episode, I discuss the puzzling idea of a right to water (but not food?) and how much water people really need.


  1. David, Okay, just a few points about your article, which was an interesting and provocative read but which I found problematic in terms of implementation.

    You say that food isn't a human right, but it is. It is included in the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration has had many positive effects throughout the world. I disagree that rights leads to wars. I agree that it may have no impact, but I don’t think its impact will be negative.

    Regarding Galiani’s study, which you cite, he does not take into consideration so many of the variables that may skew his study. In fact, his essay comes across as being pro-Peronist more than anything. One variable to look into in terms of impact on child mortality, for instance, would the sudden influx of IMF funding that came with the conditionality of water privatization. He never addresses the fact that easier access to antibiotics would have the same affect. Also, establishing network connections is not the same as supplying water. In South Africa, connections increased while access to water decreased because of cut-offs. (See Patrick Bond.) Finally, what about what came afterwards in Argentina? That is, mass protests against privatization, the failure of the contract with Aguas, etc.? This alone calls into question his argument about privatization improving conditions for the poor.

    As for the rest of your paper, it can sound rather utopian. In reality, it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to redistribute and monitor water rights (and delivery systems) in the way you are suggesting. The one concrete example that you give, in South Africa, is really not related to your argument. (For a lot of complex reasons that I will not get into here…)

    That said, I do agree with you that there are problems with large public utilities, and that some watershed-based decentralization is necessary. I don’t think, however that turning water into a capitalist-based enterprise is the solution. The way you talk about stripping nature and farmers of their current protections shows a bias towards pure market values, as well as the urban user. Also, replacing public monopolies with private monopolies is not the answer. Karen

  2. @Karen --

    1) On food, I disagree. It's a distraction.

    2) IMF funding would have gone everywhere, not just to privatized areas; same with antibiotics/vaccination. From the abstract: "While privatization is associated with significant reductions in deaths from infectious and parasitic diseases, it was uncorrelated with deaths from causes unrelated to water conditions."

    Network conditions are flawed, but better than nothing. (I agree that quality matters, but quantity is a prerquisite.)

    Protests against privatization were led by demagogues (Kirchners) and water was only 3.5 % of ALL privatization.

    So no, I disagree again.

    3) The bureaucrats, thank god, would not have to do anything except assign rights. They can be managed by an exchanges, which are well-understood and functional.

    It's utopian to hope that a human right in water, on paper, will get any results in corrupt and badly governed countries.

    4) Nature is hardly protected in the current system, farmers can afford to buy water, since they sell food. If anything, I am biased towards citizens and the poor.

    5) I am NOT talking about monopolies.

  3. 1) No, I don't think you're talking monopolies, but I fear the system you are describing will lead to that. I'm sure the two of us simply disagree on basic economic principles. In my opinion, Milton Friedman is so passe!

    2) IMF funding does not go "everywhere"--it has very strict conditionalites, and one of the World Bank conditionalities has been water privatization.

    3) Don't get me wrong, I actually think the "rights" issue is something of a distraction. I also very much like the way that your position is not predictable.

    5) I'm sure we would disagree on Latin American politics. Menem was the problem.

    6) For better or worse, farmers cannot afford water anymore, particularly in the Central Valley of California and in the Punjab region of India. Of course, I think the whole Green Revolution system was screwed, which is why I say "for better or worse."

    Whatever happens, the answers will not be easy. Best of luck! Karen

  4. your 1) It's already a system of monopolies. rights would break that system

    2) no, it's not ALWAYS a condition

    3) ok :)

    4) aha. Yes, all demagogues are a problem

    5) "cannot afford" = you don't get economics on this.


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