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Argument: Water is a human right, not a commodity

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Water is essential to life and, therefore, not a normal good

Humans are completely dependent on water as aqueous creatures. There is no substitute for water in the maintenance of human life. No other good fits this description. While food is necessary for human life, there is no one single food that can't be substitute for by other foods. This makes water even more unique than food in the preservation of life; there is no substitute. As such, water has a special place in the lives of humans. It is not like other commodities. Our right to life and all other right that depend on life are dependent on access to water. Water, therefore, must be enshrined as a right.

Water extraction and supply has many externalities that governments must protect against

The extraction and supply of water has many externalities that need to be considered, and which make it a non-normal good. Water extraction can seriously harm the environment if done irresponsibly. It can lead to mass casualties of wildlife and human life. If water depletion is done irresponsibly, the resulting scarcity can cause broad economic shocks.

Water has a special cultural place in our world

The simple fact that the water privatization arouses such heated public passions indicates that water does actually have a certain sensitive and special place in the public mind. This indicates that we cannot treat water merely like houses, food, and clothing, which do not receive the same level of protest for being privately sold in the market.

  • "National Sovereignty of International Watercourses." International Greencross. 2000 - "Water and Culture. There has already been a great deal of attention given to forming a link between and reconciling the environmental and economic needs for water, with due consideration for the survival requirements of different species, including our own. While these are important considerations, it is also crucial not to forget another, ancient dimension to water - that of the significance of water to culture. Civilisations have always evolved close to and developed along waterways, and water is highly symbolic to all peoples, whether as a vital source of transport and communication, as to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon or for Russians along the Volga, or for its purifying role, as exemplified by the significance that the Ganges holds the Hindu civilisation which has developed in its basin. Water is also universally recognised as the source of all life, a belief that is held most fervently by peoples in arid regions. It is for this reason that the abuses which have been inflicted on water and watercourses should be, and increasingly are, considered unacceptable and a major indication of the urgent need for us to change our behaviour and priorities."

The fluidity and mobility of water makes it difficult or impossible to stake ownership

Water reserves and resources are very difficult to stake ownership over. Evaporation and river flows are natural forces that make water unlike land as far as the ability to claim ownership over a portion.

Water as a right precedes water as a commodity

The Cochabamba Declaration on the right to water, 2000

After a failed privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia in the late 1990s, the Cochabamba declaration was made in December, 2000: "For the right to life, for the respect of nature and the uses and traditions of our ancestors and our peoples, for all time the following shall be declared as inviolable rights with regard to the uses of water given us by the earth:

  1. Water belongs to the earth and all species and is sacred to life, therefore, the world's water must be conserved, reclaimed and protected for all future generations and its natural patterns respected.
  2. Water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government, therefore, it should not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes. These rights must be enshrined at all levels of government. In particular, an international treaty must ensure these principles are noncontrovertable.
  3. Water is best protected by local communities and citizens who must be respected as equal partners with governments in the protection and regulation of water. Peoples of the earth are the only vehicle to promote earth democracy and save water."[1]

The Accra Declaration on the Right to Water, 2001

Declared in 2001 at the end of the National Forum on Water Privatization in Accra, Ghana:

"…We are united by the following common principles, beliefs and values:

  • That water is a fundamental human right, essential to human life to which every person, rich or poor, man or woman, child or adult is entitled.
  • That water is not and should not be a common commodity to be bought and sold in the market place as an economic good.
  • Water is a natural resource that is part of our common heritage to be used judiciously and preserved for the common good of our societies and the natural environment today and in the future.
  • Water is an increasingly scarce natural resource, and as a result crucial to the securities of our societies and sovereignty of our country. For this reason alone, its ownership, control, delivery and management belong in the public domain today and tomorrow….[]"[2]

United Nations General Comment on the right to water, 2002

"The General Comment on the right to water, adopted by the Convenant on Economic and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in November 2002, is a milestone in the history of human rights. For the first time water is explicitly recognised as a fundamental human right and the 145 countries which have ratified the International CESCR will now be compelled to progressively ensure that everyone has access to safe and secure drinking water, equitably without discrimination.

"The General Comment states that: 'the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient; affordable; physically accessible; safe and acceptable water for personal and domestic uses'. It required governments to adopt national strategies and plans of action which will allow them to "move expeditiously and effectively towards the full realisation of the right to water'. These strategies should

  • be based on human rights law and principles
  • cover all aspects of the right to water and the corresponding obligations of countries
  • define clear objectives
  • set targets or goals to be achieved and the time-frame for their achievement
  • and formulate adequate policies and corresponding indicators.

"Generally, governmental obligations towards the right to drinking water under human rights law broadly fall under the principles: respects, protect and fulfil. The obligation to respect the right requires Parties to the Covenant to refrain from engaging in any conduct that interferes with the enjoyment of the right, such as practices which, for example, deny equal access to adequate drinking water or unlawfully pollute water through waste from state-owned facilities. Parties are obligated to protect human rights by preventing third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to drinking water. The obligation to fulfil requires Parties to adopt the necessary measures directed towards the full realisation of the right to drinking water."

"The General Comment is important because is provides a toll for civil society to hold governments accountable for ensuring equitable access to water. It also provides a framework to assist governments in establishing effective policies and strategies that yield real benefits for health and society. An important aspect of the value it provides is in focusing attention and activities on those most adversely affected including the poor and vulnerable."[3]

Supporting quotes and sources

  • United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights. November 27, 2002 - "The human right to drinking water is fundamental to life and health. Sufficient and safe drinking water is a precondition for the realization of human rights...a limited natural resource and a public commodity fundamental to life and health."[4]
  • "National Sovereignty of International Watercourses." International Greencross. 2000 - "Water is essential to achieving the 'right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family' (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25), and therefore it must be made available to everybody regardless of financial status. In recognition of the absolute need for water for survival, governments should regard the quantity of clean water necessary to ensure a decent standard of living for all people as sacred. An adequate supply of water must also be reserved for the preservation and natural regeneration of the environment. No water should be allocated for other purposes before these essential functions are fulfilled."
  • Barlow and Clarke (2002) proclaim it as a "universal and indivisible" truth that "the Earth's freshwater belongs to the Earth and all species, and therefore must not be treated as a private commodity to be bought, sold, and traded for profit...the global freshwater supply is a shared legacy, a public trust, and a fundamental human right, and therefore, a collective responsibility."[5]
  • "Water: To privatize or not to privatize?. The South Asian". February 27, 2004 - "A 1999 report by the city of Indianapolis on the performance of the public-private partnership in running the city's water system for five years said that employee wages and benefits have risen between 9 and 28 percent, accident rates have dropped 91%, and grievances are down 99%" - "Water is unique. Like soil and air, it is essential for survival. It exists in various forms in nature, a majority of which is not accessible for consumption. It is a limited resource without any substitute. It is required for not just the humans, but existence of the entire ecosystem."

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