The Right to Water

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droit à l'eau
One communal problem stops developed and developing countries agreeing on the question of the right to water: some want access to water form part of our fundamental human rights, and to complete the 1948 declaration of the United Nations in this way. But their case advances slowly.

To quote Sylvie Paquerot, “First of all, the right to access drinking water does not appear in general legal instruments (Universal Declaration of Human Rights or international treaties). Recently, the Commission on Human Rights has taken hold of the issue of water through their Special Rapporteur on the right to food. A report was released in 1998 on the right of access to clean drinking water. This topic became a mandate for the following report (2001). Jean Ziegler also presented the UN with a report on the link between privatisation and intervention from multinationals, and the implementation a right to the access of water.

All of this consisted of internal work within the Commission on Human Rights. In the legal sphere, on the other hand, there are references to a right to water in three texts:

• Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), Art. 14;

• Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), Art. 24;

The more or less explicit reference to the right to access water in these two texts does not make it, for States, a universal right. States consider that, starting from a particular body of law, it cannot be inferred that it is part of the universal body of law.

• Geneva Protocol (Human Rights), which requires the protection of the right to access water in case of war. It might be thought this must be the case, a fortiori, in times of peace!”

In Practice : What are the Options to Help the Most Disadvantaged?

Although the right to water is not recognised as a human right on an international level, some countries have gone further. In France, for example, following the studies carried out by the Water Academy, and notably by one of its members, Henry Smets, The French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights adopted this principle. The law on water and aquatic environments of 30 December 2006 explicitly recognises the right to water for everyone. This organisation made a declaration on the right to water at the World Water Forum in Mexico in 2006.

South Africa went even further, not only including this right in the Constitution but also turning it into a reality by offering an amount of free water for consumers (6m³/month, or 200 litres per day). This raises the issue of how to implement the right to water in practice. In a number of developing countries, as well as in Mediterranean countries in Europe, it is common to set prices by increasing block tariffs, one possible form of which offers an initial free volume of water. The idea is that each resident must pay for water, but the most disadvantaged must be systematically helped (and not only those who explicitly ask not to pay). In South Africa, during apartheid, drinking water was provided free of charge from water pumps in townships. The ANC in power wanted to make this service available in buildings but by asking for a contribution from everyone, and then thereafter providing compensation for the free water. In this example, like many others, it was thought that setting prices by increasing block tariffs would allow the realisation of both an economic efficiency objective (encouraging the optimal use of water), and a social justice objective.

In these circumstances, the debate on the implementation of a right to water is as rich as that on the right itself, and still lacks the number of sociological studies to be able to settle it. In the mean time, some think that helping the most disadvantaged to pay for their water is too expensive, and would be better to help them more generally. Others think that if we continue to finance the development of public services from local or national taxes, this will have a redistributive effect (the rich pay higher taxes), and this will all reduce the price of water generally. But it is evident that the most appropriate measures will be different between countries where water infrastructure is comprehensive, and those where it is not, but also from case to case, according to demography, population density, available resources, etc.

(Translated from a text by Bernard Barraqué, – Centre international de recherche sur l’environnement et le développement (CIRED) – Nogent sur Marne (CNRS))

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