Is Water a Human Right?

Op-Ed / Opinion | 19 November 2005

Consider these stark facts: Over one billion Asians lack access to safe drinking water. Half of the 3.5 billion people living in the region are without adequate sanitation. Pollution levels in Asia's rivers are among the highest in the world, while forest cover is among the lowest.

Between 1950 and 1995, the amount of water available to each person in Asia dropped by more than half. That figure could halve again by 2025. Simply put, people in the world's most populous region are running out of water fast.

Competition for water and conflict over access to this precious resource is increasing. This desperate water shortage is coming as Asia faces historic increases in demands for water by people and businesses. Competition is already acute in most countries in the region, especially in the dry season.

At the core of this problem is a debate on the nature of water. Is it a resource, like sunshine and the air we breathe, or is it a service, like the electricity flowing into our homes? To some in Asia, the answer is that it is more than a resource. Access to water is now recognized as a human right in many countries.

But if it is a resource, and in fact a right, how can it be managed effectively? Why should people have to pay their water bill for something that is their basic human right?

The answer is that water, if it is to be conserved and managed, must be seen as both a resource and as a service. As a resource, water should be managed among competing users through participatory approaches that take into account the needs of society's poorest and most vulnerable members.

As a service, water should be delivered based on the idea that the agency that provides it should be able to recover its costs. Consumers should share the expense of the capital investment it takes to build a healthy water system, as well as the cost of operating and maintaining it.

What most governments in Asia are asking people to pay for is not for the water as a resource, but for the cost of delivering that water to people's homes. These services have costs that need to be shared by consumers if public water systems are to be sustained.

The argument against charging consumers for the price of maintaining a water system is that the poor cannot afford to pay for water. But the simple fact is that the poor are already paying for water and they are paying higher prices than the wealthier people in their country.

In impoverished urban areas in Asia, many people rely on illegally-operating vendors who sell water of questionable quality. And they charge higher prices for it than the piped, cleaner water in more privileged sections of the community. As a result, the poor in India, for example, must make due on 1/20th of the water per day that the wealthier people in society enjoy.

Those who have to haul water from distant standpipes or other sources also pay a price in productivity, losing time they could be spending going to school or working. The environmental hazards of poor sanitation and water pollution affect the urban poor more severely than others. They are sick more often and they take longer to get well.

Studies by the Asian Development Bank have found that the poor are willing to pay a fair price for good water services. And they usually end up paying much less when connected to a 24-hour clean water supply system than when they must scramble to find water from other sources.

Reliable and affordable water service can be provided by public and private providers. What is critical is that the organizations are given autonomy to run their operation without political interference, and that they are accountable to their users. Civil society can help to make this happen.

The time has come to move beyond the debate about whether water is a resource, a right or a service. We should be focusing our efforts on conserving and managing the water we have to see that the benefits can be shared by the largest number of people possible.