Access to water enshrined as a human right

Registering concern over the continuing contamination, depletion and unequal distribution of water resources, a UN body has affirmed that access to water is a human right.

by Kanaga Raja

GENEVA: The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights meeting here on 26 November issued a declaration stating that access to water is a human right and that water is a public commodity fundamental to life and health.

The declaration, adopted by the Committee as a “General Comment”, also stipulates that water, like health, is an essential element for achieving other human rights, especially the rights to adequate food and nutrition, housing and education.

The UN Committee’s General Comment serves as an interpretation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that has been ratified by 145 countries. While the Covenant does not expressly refer to the word “water”, the Committee determined that the right to water is clearly implicit in the rights contained in Covenant articles 11 and 12.

The Committee, which is made up of 18 experts nominated by member governments but acting in an independent manner, notes that the 145 parties to the Covenant have a constant and continuing duty, in accordance with the obligation of progressive realization, to move expeditiously and effectively towards the full realization of the right to water.

The Committee has been confronted continually with widespread denial of the right to water in developing as well as developed countries. Over 1 billion persons lack access to a basic water supply, while several billion lack access to adequate sanitation, a primary cause of water contamination and diseases linked to water, the Comment states.

The continuing contamination, depletion and unequal distribution of water resources is exacerbating existing poverty. State parties have the duty to progressively realize, without discrimination, the right to water.

“The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, affordable, physically accessible, safe and acceptable water for personal and domestic uses. While those uses vary between cultures, an adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease and to provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements,” the text says.

The text notes that the right to water contains both freedoms and entitlements; the freedoms include the right to maintain access to existing water supplies necessary for the right to water, and the right to be free from interference, such as the right to be free from arbitrary disconnections or contamination of water supplies.

The elements of the right to water should be adequate for human dignity, life and death. Water should be treated as a social and cultural good, and not primarily as an economic commodity. The manner of the realization of the right to water should also be sustainable, ensuring that the right can be realized for present and future generations, the text states.

Water privatization

Prior to the adoption of the Comment, the Committee conducted discussions on this issue involving Committee Experts, civil society, international organizations like the World Bank and the WTO, and private companies.

During the discussions a number of speakers emphasized that water should be considered a public commodity even if delivery services were privatized. Some speakers took issue with the privatization of water services, arguing that this had interfered with people’s right to water.

Committee Experts who took the floor also said that there had been a tendency in which privatization had been affecting the right of people to water, making it inaccessible to the poor. They called on the Committee to affirm that water should be considered a public good and the Covenant should guarantee the right to water.

However, the Comment itself did not make references to privatization, which, according to a Committee member, was due to the fact that Committee members agreed “not to politicize the issue.”

Eide Reidel, a Committee Expert, noted that water deserved a separate Comment since in the past water was dealt with in Comments relating to the right to food and adequate housing. The Committee was treating the water issue as one affecting the individual and not in reference to States parties themselves. The role of treaties concerning transnational water resources had not been dealt with by the Committee, he said.

Some 1.6 billion people lack access to safe water and 2.4 billion people lack basic sanitation, which is a prerequisite for clean water. The World Health Organization (WHO) blames inadequate water and sanitation as the primary causes of diseases such as malaria, cholera, dysentery, schistosomiasis, infectious hepatitis and diarrhoea, associated with 3.4 million deaths each year.

The WHO welcomed the adoption of the Comment on water, calling it “an unprecedented step.” It said that the Comment is  important in that it provides a tool for civil society to hold governments accountable for ensuring access to water as well as assist governments to establish effective policies and strategies.

The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water, El Hadji Guisse, said that water was a vital resource for all and that by 2025, some 3 billion people would suffer from water shortages. He argued that the production of adequate food would be a serious challenge given the water situation.

Guisse complained that water has become a commodity that is “sold to the highest bidder” and is subject “to the laws of corruption.” In Senegal, according to Guisse, the water services are privatized and run by a French company, where now there is less water available and is of poorer quality than before. He said that the same situation is now affecting other African countries.

Miloon Kothari, the Special Rapporteur  on the Right to Housing, said that due  importance  should be given to Article 1, paragraph 2 of the Covenant, which stipulates that “In no case  may a  people be  deprived of its own means of subsistence.” That right cannot be realized without access to water.

He pointed to the debt burden in developing countries having a direct impact on States’ capacities to deliver water to their people. The private sector should be held accountable for ensuring access to water.

Jean Ziegler, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, noted that initially, the right to water had not been included in his mandate at the UN Human Rights Commission, but the Commission had extended his mandate to deal with drinking water as an element of the right to food.

Ziegler recounted an incident in 1999 in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba where the water rates went up twice over after a privatization exercise. However, street protests made the government reverse its stance on privatization of water services.

Simon Walker of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that flexibility was essential in the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Some governments had the tendency to put pressure on other governments to privatize some of their public sectors. Such parties had no obligation to do so, he maintained.

However, Mireille Cossy of the WTO said that GATS did not require the privatization or deregulation of any service. According to her, water-related services did not fall under the General Agreements of the WTO and that no country had taken commitments on water distribution so far.

John Moss, a representative of the private  consortium  SUEZ, said that measures to privatize water services could be considered a “mass salvation against want of water.” The right to water was not fully enjoyed by people not because of lack of good management, but due to  lack of commitment and mismanagement. One could not escape the economic  reality of water, whose delivery incurred costs, he said. (SUNS5245)                                          

From Third World Economics No. 295 (16-31 December 2002)