Is Water a Human Right?

As the United Nations spearheaded efforts to mark World Water Day on Monday, scarcity was at the top of the agenda. And with an increasing number of communities around the world lacking sufficient water supplies, the push to classify access to potable water as a basic human right is gaining ground among a variety of stakeholders.

“Water challenges are most obvious in developing nations, but they affect every country on earth. And they transcend political boundaries. As water becomes increasingly scarce, it may become a potential catalyst for conflict among — and within — countries,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said to mark the occasion.

“Water is actually a test case for preventive diplomacy. Historically, many long-term global challenges — including water — have been left to fester for years until they grew so serious that they could no longer be ignored. If we can rally the world to address the water issue now, we can take early corrective action, and get ahead of the challenges that await us,” Clinton said of the Obama administration’s stance.

Water issues are quickly emerging as among the most pressing environmental and social concerns around the world. U.N. studies predict that two-thirds of the world’s countries will face scarcity and water-stress by 2020. Millions every year fall ill to preventable water-borne diseases that cause 3.7 percent of all global deaths.

Activist water advocates, like Live Earth (organizers of the international Dow Live Earth Run for Water on April 18), already consider water a basic human right and believe that governments, international bodies and private-sector actors who don’t are behind the times.

Bolivian President Evo Morales ensured the inclusion of water as a human right in Bolivia’s 2009 constitution and has petitioned the U.N. to categorize access as a universal right at the international level. Belgium, the Netherlands and France have all also recognized the right to water, according to the Freshwater Action Network. The U.S., China and others have repeatedly expressed opposition to the move over concerns it would force countries to share water across borders and create herculean demands on governments.

Soft drink giant Pepsi was the first major multinational to recognize water as a human right as a matter of public commitment and policy, and Intel Corporation announced a similar stance this month (.pdf). A broad range of private-sector actors have responded to the water movement with concentrated efforts to reduce water consumption and promote sustainable water use along their supply chains. But few have publicly endorsed access as a basic human right.

With a U.N. General Assembly endorsement of 2015-2025 as the International Decade for Action, or “Water for Life,” water advocates are likely to ramp up the pressure to get the right to water enshrined as an accepted international norm.