23 Mar 2010

Water and human rights -- part 2

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

People need water --- why? how much?

The Earth has abundant fresh water but not abundant clean water (Whittington et al., 2008). The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 2.4 million deaths each year from problems with water supply, sanitation and hygiene, or WSH (Prüss-Üstün et al., 2008). Within this number are 1.5 million deaths due to diarrhoeal diseases, an estimate that WHO has just increased to 1.9 million — implying that 2.8, not 2.4, million people die annually of WSH-related causes (Lewis, 2009). 2.8 million deaths is a lot, but it doesn’t seem like a good reason to make “access to clean affordable water" into a human right. After all, 1.02 billion people lack access to clean affordable food (FAO, 2009), and over 6 million children under five starve each year, but we have no human right to food.(Squires, 2009).

So why water, and not food?
Or, put differently, if there’s no right to food, then why have a right to water? This question has no easy answer, but it is important to consider that most food is supplied by private parties (farmers, selling in markets) while most water is supplied by governments (bureaucrats, delivering through monopolies). On the one hand, we may support a right to water as a counter-weight to the monopoly power of the organization that provides water to our home or village; on the other hand, we may think it easy to create a right in a regulated bureaucracy. Indeed, it seems that government’s role (and failure) in water provision is more important in the campaign for rights than water’s life-sustaining nature. We don’t talk about a right to food, housing , or clothing because there are so many different sources of all these goods. Water often comes from one place; failure of that single source can leave us dried out, desperate and dying.

People often inflate the fact that we will die without some water in to a fear that humans will die if water is bought and sold. But how much water do we need? The WHO says 20 liters/capita/day (lcd) are adequate for basic needs (Howard and Bartram, 2003). Gleick (1996) says that 50 lcd are adequate for health and sanitation. Chenoweth (2008) estimates that 135 lcd are enough for human health and economic and social development, and we will use that number (approximately 36 gallons per person per day) in this paper.

So it seems reasonable to divide an individual’s water demand into two parts; a “lifeline need" of 135 lcd and “lifestyle demand" — note the word pairs, lifeline and lifestyle, need and demand — for greater quantities. Since every country in the world has more than 135 lcd of supply, it seems that the access-to-water problem is driven more by inadequate distribution than insufficient supply. We next consider distribution — not of water but of the rights — human rights and property rights — in water.

In tomorrow's episode, I compare positive and negative rights and how a right to water may be impossible to deliver.


  1. A very interesting post Professor. Here is a link on the right to food:

    A right to electricity is coming, by the way

  2. By the way, your post is discussed here:

  3. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, Section 1, declares a right to food:

    "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

  4. Thanks for those links, folks. I guess that there *is* a right to food, but that right arrives with such a long wish list that I can't take them seriously, as an action list that MUST be delivered.

  5. I think it just means you have the same problem with a right to food as you do with a right to water...

  6. @josh -- no, we do not *own* food as citizens. The case for a right to food is even worse.

  7. I own food. That crack about just renting tequila is a joke.

  8. "@josh -- no, we do not *own* food as citizens. The case for a right to food is even worse."

    David, sounds like you are against the whole idea embodied under the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm

    what about that 'capability approach' that Sen made?

  9. @Josh -- as in "rent to own"? :)

    @Mova -- fine words do not lead to fine results. I am FOR those, by any means, and have a strong skepticism of "solutions" created by bureaucrats...

    If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara desert in five years there’d be a shortage of sand. -- Milton Friedman


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