Water Rights in the 21st Century

“In Barranquilla, Columbia the price of water costs much more than in New York and London combined”. ~ UNHDR, 2006

By Erica Carlino

Today millions of people in the developed world take for granted that they have access to water for life and livelihood, while others struggle for subsistence.

Did you know that 12% of the world’s population controls 85% of the world’s water? Well, if you’re finding this statement rather hard to believe, just take a look at the numbers. According to the 2006 UN Human Development Report, people have a minimum basic water requirement of 20 liters per day. This estimate takes into account drinking and basic personal hygiene, however if bathing and laundry needs were factored in, this number would raise to about 50 liters per day. Yet, In the United Kingdom, the average person uses more than 50 liters of water daily flushing toilets alone (the average water consumption in the UK is around 150 liters). While in the United States, one person taking a shower uses more water in five minutes than the average person living in a developing country slum uses in a whole day.

Countries like the United states also maintain jarring levels of overall water consumption compared to many other nations. With the average water consumption in Europe per person around 250 liters, and the average water consumption in the United States around 600 liters, these developing nations lie in stark contrast with the 1.8 billion people in developing countries whose access is limited to less than 20 liters of water per day.

Why then, are so many caught up in believing that our water crisis has more to do with a scarcity of resources than a distribution of them? The answer to this question can be found in the current economic ideology of neo-liberalism. According to neo-liberal rhetoric, efficiency and economic growth is realized through the privatization and commodification of everything, including public goods. The problem when we privatize everything from water to mass transit is that it no longer becomes profitable to provide services to those who can’t afford it. This creates an extremely unequal system where the wealthy may have unlimited access to water and the poor may have no access at all. That’s why a home in Arizona can use more than 1,000 liters of water a day keeping its lawn green, while the parents of a child in Mozambique struggle to keep their child clean enough to ward off killer infections and maintain their health and dignity on barely 10 liters of water a day. Bearing this in mind, national water usage averages also tend to mask inequalities within countries. A past article from Detroit News reported that 100,000 people in Detroit, Michigan were without water because they could not afford to pay their water bills. Consequently, when IMF and World Bank policies call for efficiency, there is no implication that they are also calling for universal access.

Many believe that something can be done to ward off the solemn predictions like that of UNESCO’s Third World Water Development Report which predicts nearly half of humanity will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030. If water access were more equally distributed everyone could have more than enough for their individual needs. In fact, household water requirements represent only a small fraction of total water usage, usually less than 5%. Therefore, there is no reason for such tremendous inequality in access to clean water and sanitation at a household level. Delivering clean water, removing wastewater and providing sanitation are among the most basic foundations for human progress. As citizens of the world, we have an obligation to protect our life source – water – and to engage in multilateral practices that share resources with our neighbors.

Beyond water use for life, it is easy to forget that most of the world depends on water for their livelihood as well. Livelihood is defined as the capabilities and assets that people need in order to make a living and maintain their well-being. Most people’s livelihoods depend on whole industries such as agriculture and fishing. These industries are greatly affected by the deterioration of water quantity and quality. Such disruptions of water exacerbate the effects of droughts and floods. Furthermore, water contamination affects food production, thereby directly affecting the health of all living things.

Another challenge specific to post-industrialization includes the gross misuse of water. More than ever before, water is diverted from agriculture to industry, creating threats of hunger and less potential food production in the country being exploited. Take Coca Cola in Kerala, India for example. According to one report, it takes 3 liters of local water to produce 1 liter of Coke. Coke is typical of many global companies, which use land and water from poor countries to produce products that are largely consumed in wealthy countries. It is also not uncommon to find countries dismantling their environmental protection laws in an attempt to compete for foreign direct investment and make themselves more desirable for multi-national corporations and business. Such deregulation of standards has led to the depletion and pollution of a significant percentage of inland water supplies by global industries. Additionally, the water pollution created by industry has had devastating affects on the environment. A 2010 report in Global Biodiversity Outlook states that the number of dead zone locations worldwide, defined as coastal areas where water oxygen levels are too low to sustain marine life, has been doubling every decade since 1960.

Although prospects may seem bleak, these are some of the challenges humanity faces in the twenty-first century. Challenges like water depletion and degradation, unequal distribution of water access and sanitation, and rising water prices for the poorest of the world all need to be addressed. Fortunately, some progress has been made in the right direction. Activists like Maude Barlow and former Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Solon, have imbued civil society with a renewed hope over the issue of water rights in the twenty first Century. Just one year ago, their efforts, along with many others, helped to pass the UN Convention of Water as a Human Right. This convention obligates governments to ensure that people enjoy “sufficient, safe, accessible and affordable water, without discrimination”. Moreover, it asserts that water be protected and distributed across all nations. Although this can be seen as a success on the side of civil society, it is important to realize that the real work has only just begun. The implementation of this convention is far from realized. With water scarcity becoming a global geo-political issue, moving up the ranks of National Security Agenda’s in Europe, America and China, getting countries to comply with these demands will not be an easy task.

Thus it is vital that civil society remain strong in our position that all people and the earth have a right to clean water. Efforts must be made so that governments take their role seriously and establish full water protection framework based on watershed management and conservation. Furthermore, transnational corporations cannot be allowed to privatize precious natural resources such as water. The time has come for all people, not just the very wealthy, to have access to clean water.