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.