Is water a human right

Human rights

Bernd Ladwig

To person

Bernd Ladwig, born in Cologne in 1966, studied political science at the Free University of Berlin and received his doctorate (Dr. phil.) From the Humboldt University of Berlin. He is professor of political theory and philosophy at the Free University of Berlin.

Clean drinking water is inaccessible for 663 million people worldwide. In contrast, every German consumes over 5,000 liters of water every day. Is that just a deplorable grievance or an injustice? Is there a human right to water?

Women in the Indian city of Hyderabad crowd around a mobile water tank. (& copy AP)

Some live in abundance ...

Unicef ​​and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that 663 million people around the world still have no access to clean drinking water. 2.4 billion people still have to get by without toilets or latrines [1]. "Despite advances in water supply, 10,000 people still die every day from diseases caused by polluted water," Caritas wrote on World Water Day 2014 [2]. In sub-Saharan Africa, it takes an average of more than 30 minutes to get to a water source. Usually girls and women have to go, who lose time for education and paid work and expose themselves to dangers like rape [3].

But the need is not the same everywhere. We Germans use an average of 5,288 liters per day. The high number does not only reflect our direct water consumption. The so-called virtual water is also taken into account. This is the water that evaporates, consumes or is polluted during the production of goods or services: 140 liters for every cup of coffee, 1,000 liters for every liter of milk, 15,500 liters for every kilo of beef. About half of the water that Germans use directly or indirectly, they import through foreign products. For example, Brazil is particularly important for our coffee imports, although its agriculture is a major cause of water pollution [4].

Is it just a deplorable grievance, an inequality with deadly consequences for millions? Or is it a Wrong, in which we contribute through our way of life? Would it be nice of us if we could limit our water consumption and advocate clean drinking water and hygienic sanitation all over the world? Or is this a duty we owe to others? The General Assembly of the United Nations answered this question on July 28, 2010 with a large majority in the second sense: It "recognizes the right to unimpaired and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is indispensable for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights "[5]. The sanitation should be inclusive, the drinking water flawless, clean, accessible and affordable. The Federal Republic of Germany also approved this resolution. It is not legally binding, but it is an important political signal.

Three contexts of the establishment of human rights

What can it mean to justify the right to drinking water and sanitation as a human right? Three contexts of such a justification can be distinguished: a political, a legal and a moral one.

Human rights are first Answers to experiences with injustice and to threats to a human life in dignity. They are aimed primarily at political rulers who also have to regulate the actions of third parties, such as private economic actors, if they want to live up to their human rights responsibility. Political activists prefer to invoke the human right of water in order to point out the dangers of commercialization - the given access for all is not compatible with trading water as an ordinary commodity. The language of human rights is intended to make it clear that everyone, including the poorest, is dependent on clean drinking water and sewage disposal. Water must therefore be regarded as a public good that everyone is entitled to [6].

Call political conflicts over water Secondly the lawyers on the scene. They try to show that the human right to water is already contained in the applicable legal provisions. It is true that not all states have recognized it by treaty or through regular practice. But the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN Social Covenant for short) of 1966 contains statements that suggest a human right to water: Article 11, Section 1 speaks of the right to an adequate standard of living; Article 12 section 1 of the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

These two articles in particular support the most important international document on the human right to water: General Comment No. 15 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Its key message is: "The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, harmless, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use." [7] However, whether the statement follows from the UN Social Covenant is legal controversial because its wording does not give a human right to water.

That is why they are decisive for the existence of human rights third moral arguments. It makes sense to base human rights on fundamental interests: in life, in well-being, in personal self-determination and political participation. We want to be able to self-confidently claim what we need in order to survive, live in dignity, have an equal say and realize our own ideas of what is good. The conception of human rights interests forms a bridge between human-physical needs and morally authenticated claims. It is therefore particularly suitable for establishing a human right to water [8]. After all, people can neither survive nor develop their skills without water.

However, rights also include obligations, human rights in particular those that states can and should fulfill. We must be able to say clearly enough by what we want to measure the actions of governments and the functioning of the basic social systems for which they are responsible. Objections to social human rights such as the right to water could arise here. Such objections have by no means fallen silent. Not all governments still believe in the right to water; the USA, for example, abstained from voting in the General Assembly on July 28, 2010.