The Environment and Human Rights (2): Water and Human Rights: The International Day of Water, March 22nd

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health / human rights and the environment

[This post is by guest-writer Line Løvåsen].

Water is what experts label the most important political and environmental issue of the 21st Century. Let me start with a few quotes:

Most people drink about 2 liters of water a day, but consume 3,000 a day if the water that goes into their food is taken into account. Rich countries use more as their consumption of meat, which is far more water-intensive than grain, is higher. Around 1.2 billion people live in places that are short of water, and it is running out in others such as northern China and western America. Meanwhile, the world’s population is growing and more water will be needed to feed it. Farming, which accounts for some 70% of human water consumption, offers the best opportunity for thrift. Repairing leaks and better irrigation in poor countries could help reduce wastage by up to 70%, as could switching to less thirsty crops in arid regions. The Economist (source)

Till taught by pain, men know not water’s worth. Lord Byron

Lord Byron

Lord Byron


Thousands have lived without love-no one without water. W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden


With these words by Auden starts the film “Flow – for love of water” from 2008 by Irena Salina. The background for the film is the fact that today one billion people are without access to clean water. This leads to diseases and death for millions of people, but also to conflicts and war. The issue of water is now at the very core of peace work. The amount of water is limited, and this raises demands to humanity that we distribute what we have more evenly.

Water is the source of all life on earth. It is essential for earth itself, and for our lives, for our metabolism and sanitation. As the veins and heart make us alive, rivers and oceans are the arteries and heart of earth. Water may be abundant, but fresh water is a scarce good. The earth consists of 70% water, and of this only 2,5% is fresh water. Water is also a prerequisite for economic growth and social development and use of water is a prerequisite for the eradication of poverty.

The uneven distribution of water has always been and continues to be an important cause of conflict and war. The countries that are exposed for these conflicts are those where water is scarce, and those that are dependent on other countries’ rivers. Only one third of development countries have access to clean water, which results in 30.000 deaths every day. 2 million people die every year of water diseases.

water shortages world map

One of the UN Millennium Development Goals is to halve the number of people without access to clean water by 2015. I will now examine obstacles on the way to this goal, and some solutions for humanity.

Clean and sufficient water

Water politics is a way of warfare. Countries often use water to pressure or punish each other. For example, they may divert or block rivers, build dams etc. This can result in millions of people being displaced, and water flows to other countries being virtually blocked. Furthermore, it can affect the food supply. Organisms which would flow with the river and feed on other organisms in a natural system evolved through thousands of years, are captured and begin to rot.

Countries may even contaminate water supplies of other countries, by accident or on purpose. Pesticides have often been used in war. One example is Agent Orange in Vietnam War. And pesticides are now making our drinking water undrinkable. Agriculture uses 70% of water, industry 20%, and private consumption 10%. Chemicals used in agriculture and industry affect our drinking water. Aztrazine (herbizide) is the most dangerous and most common in the word, sold by the Swiss company Syngenta, even when it’s banned in its home country. It can travel 1.000 km through rain water.

The lack of clean water is also a problem in parts of the developed world. It’s estimated that 500.000 to 7 million people get sick in the United States each year because of bugs, bacteria and agricultural or industrial chemicals in the tap water. Even if you stick to bottled water, you can take in dangerous chemicals through showering. And a lot of so-called bottled water is in fact tap water, sold at a higher price than gasoline.

Of course, it’s the developing countries that suffer most from the water problem. The amount of money estimated to provide clean drinking water to the entire planet is 1/3 of what we spend on bottled water.

Privatization of water

Water is supposed to be free. It’s a public good that hardly needs any production cost. The process of turning water into a business and privatizing it, is creating problems. It started as a strategy to provide water to more people, but it has opposite effect. There is a tendency to depoliticize privatization as simply a standard economic and commercial transaction between users and private service providers. But this glosses over the important questions of who decides who owns water, and thus owns survival.

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, privatization has been put forward as one part of a larger reform package intended to stabilize economies and create growth. These reforms were based on the rationale that state planning and expenditure were often less efficient than private actors operating in a free market.

Reforms were recommended by the two most important international financial institutions (IFIs) – the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The World Bank provides loans to over one hundred developing economies, with the declared aim of helping the poor. Moreover, it is a leading actor in the field of water supply and sanitation. Since 1993, the World Bank has promoted privatization as an answer to the water supply and sanitation crisis. The Water Resources Management Policy Paper states that water should be treated as an economic commodity.

The World Bank says it acknowledges the difficulties with privatization, but remains committed to its belief in the underlying rationale of private participation and continues to find new ways to encourage private investment.

Many corporations that deliver water or use it (such as Coca Cola and Pepsi) are forcing poor countries to hand over control of their water supplies, supported by the policies of the World bank and the IMF.

With the shift from public to corporate service provision promoted by the World Bank, there is a clear democratic deficit. The space for civil society to provide input and decide on a just distribution of water is limited. We are now allowing profit motives to decide the fate of water issues. Profit-based companies will normally only provide water to those they know have the ability to pay. Developing countries have not proven to be profitable for multinational companies and thus there is less investment there.

More on the problem of the privatization of water here.

What needs to be done?

The governments in countries where water is scarce must invest more in the water sector. Especially irrigation can often be much more efficient. International development aid must be more focused on water. The dominant privatization philosophy must be questioned. There must be consent of civil society before policies of water privatization are promoted. Water privatization must not be made a condition of multilateral and bilateral aid, loans or debt cancelation. Clean water must be made available to everyone, at a price affordable for the poor. Governments must have the right to subsidize water to secure adequate access for all.

Resource scarcity is usually considered to be a development question, but research by official Norwegian reports shows that peace work is also an important component. Development is about providing resources, while peace work is relationship building and how to share those resources, as resources can be both a source of peace and war.

Peace work is about raising awareness of the other’s situation. Re-establishing relations is crucial in working towards a common goal. Instead of focusing on water as a source of conflict one should see it as a source of dialogue and negotiations. As an example, even after the first and second intifada, the meetings kept going on between Israelis and Palestinians in the Water Commission.

In 1948, the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were ratified by most of the nations of the world. These 30 articles guaranteed human rights across many human endeavors, from life to liberty to freedom of thought. Now, sixty years later, recognizing that over a billion people across the planet lack access to clean water and that millions die each year as a result, it is urgent to add one more article to the declaration, the right to water.

The word “water” isn’t mentioned even once in the International Bill of Rights. However, one can assume that the right to water is implicitly included in the right to adequate living conditions, standard of living and food supply (art. 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). However, an explicit right to water would be a very good thing.

Privatization of water makes means that without money you will not get any water. It puts water and hence survival out of reach for many people. This is as absurd as the privatization of air. There are some things that shouldn’t be privately owned and traded. Water is for people, not for profit. It is a resource of life, not a property. Just as water, air, sun, moon, stars.

Want to learn more or engage?


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