CGP Water Series | Water: A Human Right

CGP's water cooler

Most of you working in an American office setting are about 5 feet away from the nearest water cooler. For the average resident of the developed world this is not uncommon–getting water is almost effortless. For an African woman walking 4 miles a day to procure a source of water, fetching it is an everyday battle.  And so, it is not insensible to suggest that to many the fact that water has achieved a human right status merits less than passing consideration. However, to the multitude of development organizations knees-deep in water issues it is a victory worth celebrating. In this post, CGP takes a look at some of the international legal documents that refer to water and their implications.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: This 1948, non-binding document, does not refer to water specifically. However,  Article 22 mandates the protection of economic, social, and cultural rights ‘indispensable’ to ‘free development’. Water is an economic right because water is a scarce commodity with an economic value. It is a social right because society is inherently unstable and chaotic in its absence. Finally, it is a cultural right because people often ascribe to water a religious or cultural value.

Because clean water is a prerequisite to life and health, water may be additionally protected under Article 25,which states that:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family”.

Convention on the Rights of the Child: This 1989 legally binding document is the first to recognize water’s special role in child development and human life. In Article 24(c), the Convention acknowledges that “[t]o combat disease and malnutrition” member states must ensure “the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking-water”.

UNSECO General Comment 15: In 2002, this General Comment recognized that water remains pivotal to the attainment of human dignity. Furthermore, it affirms that water “is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights”, underlining its special significance.

Dublin Principles: The Principles are the first binding international covenant that describes water an economic good with an inherent economic value. Ignoring that water is an economic good for which there is competing demand may lead to “wasteful and environmentally damaging uses of the resource”. 

So, what? To be sure, these instruments in and of themselves do little to expand access to water and sanitation, but they begin a conversation about these very topics. Taking these steps to codify water as a human right has focused attention on the challenges of water and sanitation issues. Together with concerted efforts to manage the global water crisis, like the inclusion of water within the Millennium Challenge Goals, the international community is definitely on the right track—but there is plenty to be done. At CGP, we hope that not only governments, but also the private sector, continue to make tangible progress in achieving universal access to water and sanitation.

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