1400: the lower estimate of child deaths stemming from water-related illnesses per day. 768 million: the number of people without access to clean drinking water (“Clean Drinking Water”). Couched in these terms, it seems difficult to understand why we wouldn’t make water a universal and human right, guaranteeing its access to all. If water is a necessary precondition of life, can we deny anyone access to it? How much value do we place on a human life, and can we quantify this in order to establish a market and maximized economic surplus? Should we? Declaring water to be a right could, in theory, secure access and ensure the survival of many people. It could even out economic and geographic disparities. But it may also distort markets and investment incentives, ultimately preventing the exact access we were trying to guarantee. Establishing water as a human right holds implications that could make allocation processes worse than they currently are.
On June 28th, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized water as a human right. The resolution “[called] upon nation states and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer […] in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all” (The Human Right to Water and Sanitation). While the declaration places water at the forefront of the international community’s considerations (though it already was included within the Millennium Development Goals), it was nonbinding and set forth no precise goals or measurement methods of impact. The language of the proposal itself is vague as it “calls upon nation states” (one may as well use the word ‘suggest’) to “scale up efforts,” which are not actually indicative of change or success. Awareness and fundraising campaigns thus qualify as “efforts” though they are not directly acting and do not guarantee an actual effect on water distribution.
Defining water as a human right is not a precise nor a binding action. “Human rights are norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses” (Nickel). Rights protect actions, but they do not allocate economic goods, therefore cannot apply to water distribution. A human right to economic goods cannot be legally enforced and instead occurs within a loose social and welfare context. Social ‘human rights’ are not obligatory conditions of governance; they are formally acknowledged but suggested goals for action. Even if the rights are specific, and their attainment can be monitored, they are not enforceable in either international or national courts of law.
Some effort has thus been made to narrow the definition of water rights. Rather than a general and nonbinding declaration, access could be designated by the specific amount of water necessary to meet the ‘basic needs’ of a person. In 1996, Gleick suggested a measure of 50 liters of water per person per day,...