Water as a human right

Editorial ,The Hindu


The passage of another World Water Day (March 22) is a painful reminder that the goal to make water a fundamental right under a global treaty remains elusive. In many countries, governments and international agencies are not expected to reduce by half the number of citizens without safe water access by 2015, as envisaged by the United Nations “Water for Life” programme. The Human Development Report 2007-08 puts the world average of people with an “improved water source” at 83 per cent in 2004, compared with 78 per cent in 1990. Citizens in the least developed countries and sub-Saharan Africa fall far short of that mean. The Indian experience suggests that availability of an improved water source as defined by human development indices is no guarantee of regular, reliable supply. There are growing challenges: unsustainable exploitation of millennia-old deep aquifers to cater to growing populations; pollution of surface waters by untreated sewage, pesticides, fertilizers, and industrial chemicals; inefficient agricultural use; and the impact of climate change. Many water basins transcend national boundaries, and it will take a coordinated and sustained effort by the international community to address these issues.

A global covenant that recognises access to water as a fundamental right, within the meaning of universal human rights, will provide signatory governments the basis to remove policy distortions affecting equitable access. It will also commit governments to making major investments in water supply and sanitation. The World Health Organisation proposed years ago that access to water must be made a basic human right, with a duty cast on governments to take targeted steps for its realisation. That would include legislative measures to make the right enforceable. A rights charter must have conservation of water — treating it as a commons — and an end to its commodification as its primary goals. Developing low cost and non-profit solutions to extend access through public utilities will be of vital importance. There has been a lot of debate on tapping the efficiencies of the private sector through partnerships as envisaged by the National Water Policy, 2002. The positive experience of projects such as the Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Company of the Tata group (the water in the steel town is reputed to be fit to drink straight from the tap) may be drawn upon. In the final analysis, acceptance of water as a fundamental right assumes public ownership, free supply for basic needs, and efficient delivery systems.


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