Water is NOT a right

In: Uncategorized

24 Apr 2010

Until I started researching the subject I did not realise that the United Nations (UN) approach to water shortages was to designate it as a human right. Although this sounds appealing – everyone needs water to live – it should be resisted.

For a start declaring a “right to water” is meaningless if the means are not available to achieve it. The reason so many people in the world lack access to clean water is not because governments – or corporations – are setting out to deny them rights. It is because they are poor – it is a problem of lack of economic development rather than political discrimination.

This misunderstanding points to a more fundamental problem with the rights-based approach. It confuses rights and needs. Water is a fundamental human need and it takes a huge amount of resources to deliver it. Providing a clean water supply demands a massively expensive infrastructure that works from source to sewer.  If such an infrastructure is not in place the population is at huge risk from water-borne diseases.

In contrast rights are about political freedom rather than primarily about resources. For example, classic freedoms such as assembly, movement and speech depend on putting limits on the ability of the state to regulate the lives of individuals. Resources may help to realise such rights – for example, it costs money to run a newspaper or a television station – but fundamentally they are questions of freedom rather than economics.

Amartya Sen, with his capability-based approach to development, has played a key role in blurring the distinction between needs and rights (see 16 April 2010 post). Non-governmental organisations have also keenly taken it up in relation to water and more generally.

An example of where such an approach can lead can be seen on this bizarre video on the Opendemocracy website. It starts from the correct assumption that many people in the world lack access to clean water, goes on to talk about bottled water in the West and then engages in a cod Marxist attack on corporations denying water to the poor. The video may be crass but it was posted on a respected website and is broadly in line with the official approach to the subject.

I will post my longer articles on water on Monday.