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The Human Right to Water

Concept paper prepared by:

Samantha Peirson (Business Development Officer, Masy Consultants)


Upholding human rights is at the centre of social work practice with individuals, communities, and large governing bodies. While the invention of human rights has had a long and complex history, the concept of water as a human right is a recent development. It has been implicit in many human rights policies throughout the 20th century, but was not instated as an individual right until 2010. This concept is an important stepping stone to ensuring clean water for all, yet is criticised for its impracticality in developing countries. Divisive discussions around binaries, such as “water as a human right” versus “water as a commodity”, have led to an inability to see nuance, or the individuals affected by the discussion. My work at Masy Consultants has been characterised by this concept. It has shown me the importance of empowering communities by working at the local level, and not just at the international or governmental level as this concept is so often written about.

Water as a relatively new human right

While the concept of human rights has had a long history and has varied in its focus over time, the human right to water is relatively new. Water is an irreplaceable resource in people’s lives, needed for a wide range of activities that contribute to survival (Bakker 2007: 432, 437, 441, Nehaluddin and Lilienthal 2021: 299, Ibrahim 2021: 476). Many human rights policies throughout the 20th century have raised important issues, such as health and food, but have failed to include access to water. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers to “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family” (United Nations 1948). Of course, despite water’s integral role to an adequate life, there is no specific mention of it. In the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), there is a reference again to the right to an adequate standard of living - “the highest attainable standard” of health (United Nations 1966). This policy references topics such as food, medical services, and environmental hygiene, and once again no reference to water specifically. In 2002, this issue was publicly criticised, causing the UN to clarify and state that the human right to water is implicit due to its inextricable link to the right to food, health and life (Bakker 2007: 437, Grönwall and Danert 2020: 3, Nehaluddin and Lilienthal 2021: 303). It was only in 2010 that the UN adopted ​​Resolution 64/292 recognizing “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights” (UN General Assembly 2010). This resolution put water in the spotlight, placing a responsibility on states to ensure access for all citizens. Despite this, the policy is imprecise and difficult to enforce due to its vagueness. (Nehaluddin and Lilienthal 2021: 301, 306, Ibrahim 2021: 474). Since Resolution 64/292, the human right to water has grown exponentially in its reference in research and policy (Faulkner et al. 2021: 1), most notably in the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals.

(Sustineo, 2020)

Why make water a human right?

Over two billion people worldwide have poor access to clean water (CDC 2022). This begs the question: will making water a human right help this appalling statistic? Peter Gleick (2003: 489) puts forward that there are several reasons that making water a human right is a good idea. Firstly, it renews efforts to ensure that clean water is a universal utility that all people have. Secondly, it places pressure upon governments and international law bodies to ensure water conditions are being improved. Thirdly, it places a spotlight on the poor water management practices. Finally, it encourages governments to resolve shared water disputes and prioritisehuman right to water.

With that being said, there has been disapproval of water being installed as a human right. Firstly, it has been criticised for being an “empty signifier” for Western countries to appear as though they’re making great changes to the world while loading heavier burdens upon the developing nations (Lyne 2020: 732). Some countries have been frustrated when they disagreed with the human right to water but were unacknowledged by the UN despite member status (Ibrahim 2021: 474). Secondly, it has a lack of capacity for clear implementation (Bakker 2007: 439). One article criticised its ability to only make very minute adjustments rather than being able to make a genuine change (Faulkner et al. 2021: 4). Others have warned that by making water a human right without clear guidance or new innovations, it may end in hydrological degradation (Bakker 2007: 438).

Personally, I have found some of these criticisms to be rather compelling. The expectation for developing countries to grow their infrastructure and water access, while being discouraged from using measures such as free trade or non-environmentally friendly practices, seems unfair. Leveraging these tools is exactly how the West managed to achieve widespread quality water access. Eco-friendly and human rights-based practices are the future - this is undeniable. However, without clear plans or innovative technology to enable widespread water growth, the efforts of wealthy countries helping developing nations improve their economic and living conditions are limited, especially when expanding on water infrastructure.

(Rural Water Supply Network, 2020)

What does water as a human right mean?

The human right to water is discussed with respect to five characteristics: availability, accessibility, quality, affordability, and acceptability (Giné-Garriga et al. 2017: 4, Grönwall and Danert 2020: 5-6, Nehaluddin and Lilienthal 2021: 303). Availability focuses on whether there is enough water for each person for their basic daily activities. Accessibility looks at whether there is safe water close enough to all people so that retrieving it does not impede other areas of their life (such as education). Quality involves ensuring water is free from harmful substances and diseases so that it is safe to drink. While water is not required to be free, affordability means that it must be inexpensive enough so that all people can access it (Bakker 2007: 439). Finally, acceptability looks at whether the odour, taste, and appearance are pleasing to the user.

Human rights indicate a relationship between the state and its citizens according to Grönwall and Danert (2020: 2), and thus a duty to uphold and ensure the rights of their people. Concerning the human right to water, governments have a responsibility to their citizens to ensure that safe water is becoming more accessible for all (Angel and Loftus 2019: 206, Bakker 2007: 432, Giné-Garriga et al. 2017: 3, Nehaluddin and Lilienthal 2021: 302, 304). To do this they have three roles; respect, protect and fulfil (Grönwall and Danert 2020: 16).

Firstly, governments are to respect this human right by not undermining existing sources of water. Governments that unreasonably prevent citizens from using their preferred water source would be in breach of this role (Grönwall and Danert 2020: 16). States must also respect the needs of the community for water (Grönwall and Danert 2020: 5) by not restricting the use of water for spiritual or cultural practices (Ibrahim, 2021: 476).

Secondly, protecting this right involves regulating third parties to ensure they are not harming access or the safety of the water. This means putting environmental management laws in place to prevent overconsumption or toxic substances from being emptied into waterways (Lambooy 2011: 854, Nehaluddin and Lilienthal 2021: 306). It also regulates private sector involvement in water distribution, ensuring the efficiency, quality, and equity of the service.

Finally, fulfilling this right involves facilitating the distribution of water so that all people can have sufficient access to clean water. It also involves educating the population on safe water use and hygiene. The provision of water in dire situations, such as natural disasters, is also included in this role (Grönwall and Danert 2020: 16).

(WaterAid, 2020)

Due to the difficulty of actualising this human right, particularly for countries with less capital, it is considered a progressive right (Nehaluddin and Lilienthal 2021: 302, 306). This means it is something that will be implemented over time.

Commodity versus Human Right

Since the inception of this concept, the conversation has been fraught with debate around the implications of the human right to water. We understand that installing this human right into policy doesn’t necessarily mean it will actualise. Even countries such as South Africa, which has the human right to water as part of their constitution, have violated this in the past, failing to provide universal clean water to its citizens in droughts (Angel and Loftus 2019: 208, Bakker 2007: 431, Nehaluddin and Lilienthal 2021: 305). This confusion over practicality has often seen binaries be pitted against one another with an inability to discuss nuance in this area (Bakker 2007: 433). While the responsibility of governments was understood, many countries were faced with the problem of not having enough money to build and sustain the necessary infrastructure. One solution that was posed was the privatisation of water, stating the private sector would have the capital and efficiency to build the infrastructure compared to the government (Bakker 2007: 432, 437, Ibrahim 2021: 471). It has also worked well for other utility areas such as gas and electricity (Bakker 2007: 437). Thus began the debate over whether water is a commodity and should be bought and sold or whether it is a human right and be protected from the marketplace (Bakker 2007: 433, Ibrahim 2021: 469, Nehaluddin and Lilienthal 2021: 302). Involvement of the private sector has not had the best outcome, particularly when unregulated (Ibrahim 2021: 473). The private sector is motivated by profit, making it particularly susceptible to violating the rights of the most marginalised in society (Giné-Garriga et al. 2017: 3, Grönwall and Danert 2020: 4). Through price gouging and corner-cutting, those at the bottom of society are at risk of being left behind in water access and quality (Bakker 2007: 437, Ibrahim 2021: 478). There is also a danger that the private sector will focus on wealthy suburbs for profitability, allowing infrastructure in poor areas to remain unimproved (Ibrahim 2021: 473). With these variables considered, it is no surprise that third parties have been seen to not necessarily be more efficient than government-run provisions (Ibrahim 2021: 473).

The growth of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been a growing solution to help to balance the issues raised above. CSR is often seen as the way to ensure that economic growth is occurring while also preventing negative consequences (Lambooy 2011: 856). However, cynicism emerges when the main motivations of companies to ensure good water management are solely self-interested; not wanting to pay too much for water, the need for water in the future, and the desire to maintain a good reputation (Lambooy 2011: 856). While this is a great development and offers great improvement, relying on this for the upholding of human rights is a poor idea.

The use of the private sector has not always ended badly though. One of the biggest factors in the successful rollout of the human right to water, whether public or private, is good governance. Good governance means that the provision is well regulated, and standards for water quality and access are ensured. One study showed that this was the most compelling aspect to donors in where they wanted to give money for improvement (El Khanji 2021: 650). Third parties are an option if the government regulates them well, ensuring that price points are restricted and that efficient and quality service is provided through independent monitoring (Bakker 2007: 439, Nehaluddin and Lilienthal 2021: 305, Ibrahim 2021: 478).

The idea of the “commons” is a different alternative to privatisation and public provision in which water belongs to and is run collectively by the community (Bakker 2007: 441). This allows communities to benefit directly from the jobs and income it generates, as well as enables them to dictate what the water is used for. Where governments and third parties may have failed to identify what is important to the community such as water for religious and cultural practices, the community can guide this. Lyne (2020) discusses an example from Cambodia in which locals created an organisation that built water refill kiosks for 20L bottles. This allowed for safe water access while also providing jobs and businesses to the area. This correlates with the defence that not all third parties are motivated wholly by profit. Social enterprises and community-run initiatives are organisations that are motivated by political, social, and cultural growth, not just economic (Lyne 2020: 745). Other writers have criticised that any move away from government is a “slippery slope” towards human rights violations (Lyne 2020: 733). Other objections have warned of the danger of romanticising community control as this can still result in marginalisation and inequitable resource distribution (Bakker 2007: 444).

(ID4D, 2020)

It is clear that there are benefits and downfalls to all systems of water provisions. By being unafraid of nuance and open to other possible options, governments can utilise all types of systems to encourage nuanced, diverse access for all (Angel and Loftus 2019: 207, 212).

The role of individuals and communities within this right

The topic of water as a human right focuses primarily on international organisations and laws or on governments and corporations rather than the communities it is affecting and the local governments that implement it (Carrard et al. 2020: 2).

Grönwall and Danert (2020) discuss the importance of not forgetting the individual in this debate. She puts the focus back on individual preferences and their right to be self-sufficient without the interference of the state. Self-supply, particularly through groundwater, is one of the most common ways in the world that people source their water. She says, “Ignoring the diverse ways in which water access at household level does not do justice to the lived reality of millions of people” (Grönwall and Danert 2020: 16). She outlines that the state’s role is to respect this right by knowing their citizens' preferences and protecting it. One example she gives of this is to prevent groundwater from being contaminated or becoming scarce by monitoring and mapping groundwater quality and availability (Grönwall and Danert 2020: 16).

Other studies such as Hope and Ballon (2021) build on this idea by discussing the importance of understanding the consumer choices of the public. It allows governments to understand the citizens' values and priorities. This means that governments with fewer resources can take targeted approaches to improve access in ways that focus on what is important to their constituents. This study focused on vulnerable people in society to understand how they are affected by various changes in water access. For example, the study found that women and lower income groups were concerned most about price and would forgo quick repairs of water stations to ensure prices stay low. In contrast, higher classes would tolerate higher payment levels even when service was low (Hope and Ballon 2021: 5). This further exemplifies the vulnerability that marginalised groups have in the discussion around safe water.

My practice experience and relevance

In relation to my placement at Masy Consultants, human rights have been at the forefront of the work that we do. Our work is based heavily upon Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water. Masy Consultants seeks to increase safe access to water in the Philippines through their program WASH Education. WASHEd runs workshops for teachers to educate them in a curriculum on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and how to teach this to their students, in a way that factors in their community situation and resources.

Masy Consultants is focused on education, which is unique in the industry. Through education, power is given back to the community and to the next generation to rise to solve these human rights issues. Masy acknowledges that while education is an important tool for addressing water human rights violations, this tool is a small piece of the solution. If you are teaching children how to wash their hands when there is no safe water in the community, it will do little good to address the sicknesses caused by lack of access. Masy’s understanding of this, in conjunction with its education program, has begun improving Philippine infrastructure through its focus on engaging with local trades to train young locals to craft simple handwashing stations for schools using local materials.

While international law and governmental policies affect Masy’s work, the organisation primarily seeks to work with Filipino communities and their local governments, ensuring that the local challenges of the human right to water are not forgotten. By working with local government agencies such as the Schools Division of Cebu City, the organisation has enhanced the programs and policies already in place - such as the WASH in Schools (WinS) Program - to ensure that practical infrastructure is being matched with the education needed to make it sustainable.


The human right to water is a critical concept in the improvement of access to safe water across the world. There is a great need to better understand the complexity and practicality of this concept within the spheres of international law, governance, and local community empowerment. The slowness to include the human right to water explicitly in policy exemplifies the continued need for international and eco-social workers, so they can advocate for these issues to reveal the blind spots that our governing bodies have. The complex criticism around this topic also shows the need for social workers to be engaged in discussion and able to perceive nuance for the sake of practicality as well as to be creative in the solutions of how we implement this concept. It has also shown the need for social workers to not lose sight of the individuals and communities that are operating within these states. My work at Masy Consultants has been a great introduction to this important topic, as well as the role that education plays in sustaining positive attitudes to water distribution and efficiency, which I hope to develop further throughout my placement and my career beyond.



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