29 Mar 2010

Water and human rights -- part 6

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

Ownership rights or use rights?

Most people forget that water is often owned by the People, and that the State distributes the right to use water — the usufruct rights — such that (in theory) its social value is maximized. For most of history, we owners have not paid attention to how our water was used, but increasing scarcity has piqued our interest and passion. In the developed world, we want to know that our water goes to important environmental protection or food production; in the developing world, we want our water to slake our thirst. When those goals are left high and dry (as in Haiti), we turn our attention to how our water is used, to exercise our ownership rights.

Now the first objection is that most of us cannot use “our share" of water, because we are not farmers or fish. That objection goes away if we are allowed to sell our water to those who will use it. But selling water raises a second objection, that we should not sell water when we need it to live.

We can address this concern by dividing ownership rights in two — reflecting lifeline need and lifestyle demand. The first set of “need rights" would be inalienable, fixed and equal for every person, at approximately 135 liters/capita/day. The second set of “want rights" would be alienable, vary with supply, and subject to changes in population. These “trade water" rights could be rented but not sold. The ban on sales would protect owners from sharp dealing and communities from drying out. This temporal safety could be augmented by a volumetric ceiling on exports that could be relaxed as the community learned of export impacts.

So, how much water would fall into each category? Using the definition and data for renewable water supplied by the United Nations Environmental Programme, we find that Canadians would get 135 lcd as an inalienable lifeline right and still have 239,265 lcd to allocate as they please. Although that number seems preposterously large, the numbers in water-scarce Israel (with 611 lcd of renewable water) would be 135 lcd for lifeline water and 476 lcd for trade water. Total renewable supplies are 64,100 lcd in Australia, 4,300 lcd in Haiti, 4,200 lcd in Somalia and 27,500 lcd in the US.

Astute readers will already have noted that rights to water are not the same as delivery of water, especially when the owner/user is distant from his property. That separation is not a problem. It would be easy to establish a system of accounting and fiduciary managers — similar to the system in the mutual fund/unit trust industry — who would oversee, for a small fee, the physical water that individuals own (but may never see).

In tomorrow's episode, I show how property rights render the public vs private debate meaningless


  1. So... if you are looking squarely at water-as-right, then why are you opposed to codification of the notion of water as a right?

    Freedom of speech came as a codified right waaaaay before Hooters.

  2. @Josh -- a property right (property, in fact) is NOT the same as a human right.

  3. Wow... that's the first time I've ever read a libertarian-leaning person say that property rights are not the same as other rights. I'm assuming by this that you mean that other rights (life, liberty, speech, etc.) take precedence?

  4. @Josh -- the right to protection of property is NOT the same as the right *to* property. Protection of property and speech are the same. Since was *belongs* to people already, I am NOT creating a new right to property, but redistributing it to its owners.


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