human rights and the environment

World Water Day Links

world water day


Today is World Water Day. Water is perhaps not an obvious human rights issue. And, indeed, the word doesn’t feature in any of the major human rights declarations or treaties. You’ll have to go to UN Resolutions to find a right to water. Elsewhere, it’s only implicit (such as in the right to a decent standard of living).

Some links:

human rights and the environment, law, philosophy

The Environment and Human Rights (8): Instrumental Environmentalism

scene from Blade Runner

scene from Blade Runner


At first sight, human rights are at best irrelevant to environmental concerns such as global warming, resource depletion, pollution, toxic dumping, deforestation, desertification, biodiversity etc. Human rights are about what people do to each other or what governments do to people, not about what people do to the earth. In some sense, human rights are worse than irrelevant. They may take attention away from environmental problems, and perhaps even cause some of those problems. Perhaps a focus on rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of residence etc. contributes to environmental problems. Hence, human rights, in some interpretations, are not just unhelpful but even harmful. They can indeed be seen as anthropocentric, elevating the needs of humans above the needs of nature and the earth.

However, that doesn’t have to be the case, or at least not when we focus on one type of environmentalism. There are of course different types: some forms of environmentalism see nature or the earth as intrinsically valuable and in need of preservation for its own sake, while other forms have a more instrumental approach to conservation. Instrumental environmentalism argues that we should save the planet because it is – as yet – the only possible abode for humanity. (There are also other approaches – such as ethical, aesthetic or holistic ones – but this crude distinction suffices for my current purpose).

It’s the instrumental approach that is, in my opinion, most amenable to human rights discourse, even though it may not be the most convincing approach (it’s open to the criticism that it instrumentalizes nature and that it is therefore self-defeating). I would say that it’s more than merely amenable: human rights discourse can be a powerful tool for environmentalism. There are two ways to understand how this can work. First, a healthy, non-polluted and sustainable environment is a precondition for many if not all human rights. The right to health, the right to life and the right to a certain standard of living as well as numerous other rights directly depend on a healthy environment, on the preservation of forests and energy resources, on safe drinking water etc. More generally, if environmental problems are not merely local but global and if life on earth is potentially threatened then that obviously includes rights.

And secondly, it’s useful to focus on the transtemporal aspect of human rights. Human rights have many dimensions, for example a horizontal and a vertical one. The horizontal dimension – human rights are rights claims of individuals against each other and not just against the state (individuals have rights-based duties to all other individuals) – isn’t limited to individuals who are currently alive. Our current actions ought not to violate the rights of future generations. Those future generations have rights that we have to respect. And that means, inter alia, not destroying the environmental preconditions for future life. It also means that future life should not be of such low quality that it becomes impossible to realize certain human rights.

However, there’s one major drawback to this approach. One can safely assume that proper concern for the rights of future generations will ipso facto result in enormous sacrifices for existing generations, and hence violations of the rights of existing generations. Future generations are by definition very numerous, especially given adequate environmental policies. If, for example, natural resources have to be managed in such a way that future generations can have a minimal standard of living, then the mere fact that future generations will be very numerous compared to living generations means that the latter can’t use any natural resources at all. (Which is perhaps why some forms of environmentalism advocate a return to pre-modern lifestyles). That’s a variation of the so-called repugnant conclusion. I assume most of us want to avoid this conclusion, but in order to do so, we’ll have to cap the importance we give to the rights of future generations.

On the other hand, there are cases in which efforts to respect the rights of future generations automatically produce respect the rights of present generations. Saving the earth’s fish stock for the future can also benefit present generations.

the earth as seen from the moon

We can conclude that human rights and the environment can be both complementary to and at odds with each other. Whether conflict or mutual reinforcement will be the more likely outcome depends not on the specific nature of either project, but on our ability to overcome conflict. And this ability depends on a certain way of looking at those projects. If human rights are understood in a limited way – without considering the rights of future generations or without taking into account the environmental prerequisites of rights – or if environmentalism is seen as a non-instrumental value, then complementarity may be impossible and the two projects will come into conflict. One will then have to give way to the other. Of course, even if we try, we won’t always be able to find complementarity. Some human rights will in some cases be bad for the environment, and some environmental concerns will be bad for some human rights. But that will be the exception, and when it occurs, human rights will have to take precedence because most often it will be the case that rights violations, compared to disrespect for the environment, cause more immediate and certain harm to living human beings.

More on the rights of future generations is here. More posts in this series are here.

human rights and the environment

The Environment and Human Rights (7): The Effects of Climate Change on Crime Rates

heat wave


The relationship between environmental problems and human rights is underexamined. This is deplorable, because the most important environmental problem, namely climate change, is likely to have an adverse effect on human rights in lots of different ways.

For example, there is some data supporting the hypothesis that higher temperatures lead to an increase in crime, probably in part because high temperatures cause higher levels of aggression:

[H]igher temperatures lead to more assault and … the rise in violent crimes rose more quickly than the analogous rise in non-violent property-crime, an indicator that there is a “pure aggression” component to the rise in violent crime. …

Note that all crime increases as temperatures rise from 0 F to about 50 F. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that a lot of this pattern comes from “logistical constraints”, eg. it’s hard to steal a car when it’s covered in snow. But above 60 F, only the violent crimes continue to go up: murder, rape, and assault. The comparison between murder and manslaughter is elegantly telling, as manslaughter should be less motivated by malicious intent. …

Between 2010 and 2099, climate change will cause an additional 30,000 murders, 200,000 cases of rape, 1.4 million aggravated assaults, 2.2 million simple assaults, 400,000 robberies, 3.2 million burglaries, 3.0 million cases of larceny, and 1.3 million cases of vehicle theft in the United States. (source)

More on human rights and the environment here.

human rights and the environment

The Environment and Human Rights (6): The World’s Water Supply

If all of the earth’s water – salt and fresh water – would be collected into a single sphere, it would be this big compared to the size of the Earth:

world's water supply

Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

(source, source)

The sphere includes all the water in the oceans, seas, ice caps, lakes and rivers as well as groundwater, atmospheric water, and even the water in you, your dog, and your tomato plant.

A telling visualization of the world’s water crisis, albeit with a hint of alarmism, and an ideal occasion to link back to some of my older posts about the water crisis: here, here, here, here and here.

human rights and the environment

World Water Day

world water day


On the occasion of World Water Day, here are some older posts about the global water crisis and how it affects human rights:

More on human rights and the environment.

activism, health, human rights and the environment, international relations, trade

The Environment and Human Rights (5): Exporting Without Remorse: How Canada is Exporting Toxins to the 3rd World

[This is a post by guest writer Eric Stevenson, a health and safety advocate who resides in the Southeastern US].

Jeffrey Mine

Jeffrey Mine

Canada is well-known for its freshwater, its food, its winter sports, and its free health care system.  Its people have earned reputations as earnest, kind, hard workers and as a whole it is seen as a peaceful and generous nation. But recently the public’s opinion of Canada has been changing, and for unbelievable reasons.

Asbestos, Quebec is the home of Canada’s last and largest chrysotile mine. Chrysotile is a form of asbestos found in the earth and used in building materials, form drywall to ship parts.  The Jeffrey Mine is the world’s largest asbestos mine and has commercially exported nearly 90% of the world’s asbestos. Asbestos was at one time considered a completely harmless material. It is fire-retardant, resists wear and rusting, and is relatively inexpensive. Yet for decades, over 50 countries have banned asbestos from commercial and residential use.  Studies prove that asbestos is an aggressive carcinogen. When asbestos is disturbed, its fibers are released into the air and inhaled and ingested by workers and those living with the toxic material.

Inhaling or ingesting asbestos results in a deadly cancer called mesothelioma. Buildups of asbestos fibers collect in the lining of the lungs or stomach and extended exposure to the material greatly increases the risk of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma symptoms include coughing and shortness of breath and are often dormant for 20-50 years. This means that factory workers in the Jeffrey Mine, their family members who are at risk for secondhand exposure, and those to whom the asbestos will be sold may not realize that they have developed the cancer for several years. This allows the cancer to metastasize without diagnosis or treatment. Mesothelioma life expectancy ranges from only 3 months to a year. About 98% of those diagnosed with mesothelioma die shortly afterwards.

asbestos in india

asbestos in India

Though Canada is among the countries that have strict asbestos regulations in place, it insists that exporting the mineral will not harm those exposed to its carcinogenic effects. Yet the World Health Organization reports that approximately 107,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases every year. The investors of the Jeffrey Mine project are determined to proceed with the unearthing of what they believe to be the largest asbestos deposit in the world. Though many Canadians disagree with the decision to export deadly toxins, those intending to buy Jeffrey Mine plan to sell asbestos to countries that have less strict or a complete lack of asbestos laws and regulations. Thus, while Canada spends millions to rid its schools and homes of asbestos, investors hope to fill schools and homes of others with it.

The potential factory owners insist that they will use asbestos-safe gear, ventilation, showers, and filters in their factory and, according to an AOL news report, they plan to provide these amenities so that workers will not carry the fibers home to their spouses and children, thus contaminating them as well. Such precautions would be unnecessary if the asbestos being mined was truly considered harmless.

Canada has its eye on its economic future, but refuses to consider the well-being of workers and families around the world. The dangers of asbestos and symptoms of mesothelioma have been widespread knowledge and the use of the product has been banned in many countries since the 1970’s. Exporting it to others simply to make a profit is not only bad business, it’s downright unethical and must be recognized as such.

data, economics, health, human rights and the environment, law, poverty

The Environment and Human Rights (4): A Right to Water

The United Nations General Assembly recently voted in favor of an international human right to water. It’s only appropriate that people have a right to the most basic resource. Only a few countries (e.g. South Africa) have already instituted this right. The recognition of this right of course doesn’t mean that the water crisis has magically disappeared. Like the right to free speech doesn’t mean that there’s no more censorship. The real work of bringing water to people who don’t have enough still needs to be done, and some serious thinking and debating is required. Opponents and proponents of privatization, of the introduction of a water market and of other possible policies (including the policy of setting water prices high enough to discourage waste and low enough to help the poor) will continue to disagree and it will have to be settled empirically which water policy provides the best access to all.

On the other hand, the water crisis seems to be abating:

some 5.9 billion people, or 87% of the world’s population, enjoyed access to drinking water from an “improved” source in 2008. In other words, those people had water piped to a dwelling, or got it from a public tap or a protected well. Back in 1990 only 77% of the world’s population enjoyed such a luxury. Yet in some parts of the world, notably in Africa, great improvements in water supply are still needed. Some 884m people are still not using an improved water source, more than a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Eastern Asia has seen the greatest recent progress: 89% of the population in that region now have access to an improved water source, up from just 69% in 1990. (source)

access to drinking water

More on the right to water here, here and here.

health, human rights and the environment, poverty

The Environment and Human Rights (3): Water and Human Rights

thirsty water crisis


Following up from this post, some more information on the water crisis in the world and its implications for human rights. We obviously need water to survive, and no human rights without survival. Inadequate water supplies also cause diseases, violating our right to health. We need water – and clean water – to drink, but also to eat. Or rather, to produce our food. And we need a lot. People drink on average just a few liters a day, but they consume thousands of liters a day if we count the water required to produce their food. And evidently we should count it. Many areas of the world face already now face water shortages (there’s a map here). A fifth of the world’s population already lives in areas short of water. A global water crisis waits around the corner, and one likely consequence is famine, another human rights violation.

If we want to do something about the water crisis, we should be aware of the effect of food production on water shortages. Especially the production of meat requires huge amounts of water, compared to the production of grains or even rice. People in the West eat a lot a meat, and therefore contribute substantially to water shortages. As incomes in the developing world increase, people there will consume more meat. Hence, global water consumption will also increase. Combine this future increase with the fact that there are already shortages and that these shortages will get worse with global warming, desertification etc., and you get a real crisis.

What are the solutions? Or how can we prevent things from getting worse?

  • Jokingly we could ask people to become vegetarians. That would also be better for greenhouse gas emissions, by the way.
  • More seriously, and more realistically: food production, and especially agriculture and farming, represent 70% of global water consumption. That number could be cut down significantly with better irrigation; “more crop per drop”. There’s incredible waste going on there. 70% of irrigation water is lost in the process. One reason: farmers rarely pay their water bills at market prices, hence no incentives to cut waste. Unfortunately, pricing water at market prices would drive up food prices, pushing many consumers into poverty. And many poor farmers already can’t pay for expensive irrigation systems. More expensive water surely wouldn’t help them. Moreover, market prices may mean the privatization of water, and that’s dangerous. You might as well privatize oxygen.
  • Other solutions: cut waste in households and industries. Here, everyone can help. Also more recycling efforts are needed. Desalination, although expensive, is an option. As are better water storage facilities, especially for poor families in developing countries. All these efforts will not only reduce the risk of a major global water crisis, but will also improve crop yields, thereby reducing the price of food and hence the risk of poverty and famine.
health, human rights and the environment

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

[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?

human rights and the environment, poverty

The Environment and Human Rights (1): The Environmental Kuznets Curve

simon smith kuznets

Simon Smith Kuznets


It’s not uncommon to hear people worry about the economic development of the developing world: what if these billions of people start to drive cars, use airco, eat meat etc. to the same extent as the people in the West? Would that not spell the end of the earth? Isn’t there a contradiction between the fight against poverty and care for the environment? Are we forced to make some tragic choices? Leave people in poverty and save the earth? Save people and destroy the earth? Radically change our Western lifestyle?

The concept of sustainable development, development and economic growth which takes the environment into account, doesn’t seem to calm the fears. And then people start to discuss overpopulation and all the nastiness that comes with it, or they turn to cultural pessimism about the excesses of the Western consumer society.

A more hopeful sign comes from economics, and in particular the Environmental Kuznets Curve. This curve shows a U-shaped relationship between per capita income (GDP) and the quality of the environment. Measures of the quality of the environment do indeed fall in the initial stages of economic growth, but this trend turns around at about $5.000 per capita GDP, with many measures of environmental damage showing improvement from $8.000 onwards (source).

environmental kuznets curve