Water is a limited natural resource and a public good fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity.CESCR General Comment 15 (2002)
Last week, March 22nd, people celebrated World Water Day around the world. The day recognises that water, arguably more than anything else, is essential to all life here on Earth. The day was not noticeably news in Aotearoa New Zealand, however. And yet we are all only too well aware that there are huge problems here associated with water. These include its quality, use and distribution, and over who has the responsibility for addressing all these. In such an affluent country there are still places where shockingly there is a lack of access to clean drinking water, there are polluted water ways and beaches, and there are arguments at all levels and in all sectors about who is responsible and who should pay.
Can the human rights system, which regards water as a human right, provide any help with any of these problems? Well, yes, quite a lot. A human right to water is recognised as included in the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which New Zealand is a party). Water is not specifically mentioned in that Article, which includes reference to housing, food and clothing. However, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which oversees and monitors this Covenant, has repeatedly affirmed that a right to water is fundamental to leading a life in human dignity, and especially clearly in its comprehensive General Comment 15 of 2002. The Committee has recognised that water is a prerequisite for the realisation of other rights, including the rights to health, food, and housing – and indeed to life. It recognises that a lack of access to water and sanitation is a primary cause of widespread poverty and disease.
This affirmation of water as a human right and for these reasons was endorsed in 2010 by the UN Human Rights Council in its Resolution Human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation, subsequently affirmed by the UN General Assembly. The UN Human Rights Council had also earlier in 2008 appointed an Independent Expert (later Special Rapporteur) on the Human Rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.
General Comment 15 and the many reports of the three Special Rapporteurs aim to address and thus assist states with the many problems associated with water and sanitation.
These include the adequacy of water, which must include paying attention to issues of availability (that is, ensuring sufficiency of supply), quality and access, both physical and economic. This last highlights the importance of seeing that there is no discrimination in availability for disadvantaged groups and especially that the most marginalised are taken care of. (Other UN Treaty Bodies have similarly raised issues of access to the right to water in connection with the particular groups for which they have responsibility, including women, children, people with disabilities and indigenous peoples.)
The question of discrimination becomes especially important where the state, although it retains the ultimate obligation for the protection and fulfilment of these rights for its people, has devolved certain aspects such as delivery and costing to third parties, that is where responsibility has been privatised. An example of the depth and detail of the reports available is provided by the recently presented report from the Special Rapporteur, on Human Rights and the privatization of water and sanitation services.
The reports also include advice on strategies and policies to advance their recommendations and to monitor progress; for example they recommend a national plan of action, such as New Zealand is, again, in the process of developing.
While all these recommendations are necessarily general in nature it is surprising just how similar are the problems faced in every country in the world, including here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
The human right to water also has a widely recognised spiritual dimension, which should be mentioned here, although perhaps unusually in a human rights blog. The connection can be clearly illustrated by the appearance of the present Special Rapporteur, Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, in a webinar organised by the ecumenical World Council of Churches to mark World Water Day. In that address he refers to water as ‘the blue soul for life’. He notes that all beliefs and religions have considered water as sacred, as indeed do the two founding cultures of Aotearoa New Zealand. In that context he warns against considering it as a mere commodity, surely a bottom line for us as we develop policy and practice.
NOTE: The Human Rights Foundation’s blog presents a human rights perspective on current issues. Through it, we aim to highlight human rights in general, as they provide: (1) a set of agreed international standards, under which governments, including ours, have obligations to their peoples; (2) information on policies and practices which can be useful models for adapting to local conditions.