Water is a human right! Water needed for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene as basis for survival must be available even for a person unable to pay. If one asks about the legal basis: the right to life is an essential part in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art 3.). And with Article 24 expressing the right to a standard of living adequate for human health, it is clear that this is about truly safe water.

But contrary to many other rights stipulated in the Declaration there must be limits: water to fill a private swimming pool or to wash a car, for instance, is not a free public good; rather it should be a normal commercial good covering at least the full cost of infrastructure, not subsidised or even distributed for free. Quite probably, no Court of Human Rights would object to municipal water schemes stopping supply for pools in a period of drought when not enough water is available for drinking. Personally, I would find such an objection rather extreme.

UN Resolution 64/292, approved by the General Assembly formalised and confirmed this on 28 July 2010:

"The General Assembly:

  1. Recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights;
  2. Calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, through international assistance and cooperation, in particular to developing countries, in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all."

For many years before the 2010 resolution, Nestlé formally, in its business principles, and I personally, in numerous public speeches, have been strong supporters of water as a human right.

What needs to be done?

The World Health Organization estimates the water need for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene in emergency situations at 15 litres per person per day: WHO also mentions a number of out-of-home water requirements, in hospitals, mosques for ceremonial purposes, schools etc. Ultimately, basic needs are estimated by different sources at 25-50 litres per capita per day. Assuming 25 litres, this would be a global volume of 1.5% of water withdrawals for human use. In other words, the problem here is not shortage of water, but something one might consider bad management.

The United Nations General Assembly in its resolution of 28 July 2010 leaves no doubt: responsibility is clearly with the state. And actually, more than 97% of municipal water in developing and emerging economies is distributed by publicly owned and publicly managed entities. Most of the remaining 3% are run in public private partnerships. The only notable exception is Chile, which I will come back to.

Rather than concentrating on a legalistic understanding, however, let me illustrate with some practical examples of what seems to work and what may be problematic with respect to implementing water as a human right.

Water should not be a free good

I mentioned this as an extreme case for washing cars and filling private pools. But there are other more delicate situations that need to be evaluated. In the Indian Punjab, for instance, everybody pumps up water from the underground aquifer – mostly to irrigate the fields. There are no limits; electricity for the pumps is provided for free by the government. As a result, water tables are falling by up to one metre per year (National Geophysical Research Institute).

Everybody, particularly the farmers withdrawing most of this water, knows that they are destroying their livelihood. But with water as a free good, even if an individual decides to reduce the amount withdrawn by pumping, this individual knows that the neighbours and neighbouring villages will pump up anyway. Water as a free good leads directly to what is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’; exploited by all, protected by none. For good reasons, it is not part of resolution 64/292.

Farmers in Oman have, I think, found a good solution more than 4,000 years ago that is still functioning well today; I plan to write about this on my blog later on. But there are, of course, other ways to do it, too. 

Untargeted subsidies are counterproductive

Many municipalities are avoiding full cost recovery by the tariffs charged to those who have tap water at home. They do it as a measure of ‘social support’ to the poor, but actually they only make the water for the more prosperous less expensive. The poor pay the price. The municipal schemes lack resources for proper maintenance and for expansion to those arriving from rural areas. Ultimately, as the chart shows, the poor pay a much higher price for water to street vendors.

Paid per m³ of drinking water, in US¢. Source: UNDP, Human Development Report. Click to download chart (19KB)

Focused subsidies in South Africa and in Chile

Not everybody can afford to pay a tariff for water that covers all costs. So the subsidies for tap water address a real issue, although with the wrong instruments. There are better ways! Let me mention just two examples.

In 2000, the South African government introduced the Free Basic Water policy: http://www.dwaf.gov.za/documents/fbw/qabrochureaug2002.pdf. Every household who cannot afford to pay will get up to 6,000 litres of water per month at no cost (based on a 25 litres per person per day for an assumed average family of eight): http://www.acwr.co.za/pdf_files/02.pdf

Chile, the main exception where municipal water is distributed by independent private firms, where all costs are fully recovered through water tariffs, introduced the Soidario system in 2002: As part of it, authorities set a percentage of a household’s water bill that can be subsided: not less than 25% or more than 75% of consumption, up to a total consumption of 20 m3 per month. In 2010, 702,000 households received such a subsidy. 

A lot remains to be done

About 800 million people in the world still lack access to safe drinking water – and for billions of those with access to ‘improved’ water this water is not truly safe.

The discussion about the human right to water has to continue, not in largely abstract legal terms but rather as debate about its practical, and in that respect also political, implementation.

This blog is only one among many sites looking into this important topic – but with your comments we may add a few new ideas. I welcome your thoughts.