Saturday, 16 April 2011

Is access to clean water a basic human right?

One would have thought that water is the minimum that the mighty modern human society will be able to assure all human beings. Well, it is still not so. What is worse, is the fact that we are still deliberating as to whether water should be treated as a fundamental human right....

Water still remains a scarce commodity for millions around the round

The Uncommon Sense

It is said that common sense is very uncommon. If you do not believe it to be so, then take a look at the following words.

"Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right. Contaminated water jeopardizes both the physical and social health of all people. It is an affront to human dignity."   
These words are taken from the message of the Secretary General of United Nations Kofi Annan, on 22nd March 2001, on the occasion of World Water Day.
Anyone reading those words at the time would have felt like being told the obvious. I am yet to come across a person who thinks that water is not the first essential need of life, and I am not restricting myself to those who dwell in the desert. Ask any person from the lower socio-economic strata living in a third world urban agglomeration and she will tell you why, in spite of twenty one centuries after Christ, there is still no substitute for water, and why, even as we develop into a civilization that looks forward to visit the Moon to counter its boredom, plain simple and clean water remains an elusive luxury for the millions who are a part of it.

When a basic right becomes a distant luxury !

Anyone who may feel I am exaggerating, should read what Mr Annan had to say on it.

"Yet even today, clean water is a luxury that remains out of the reach of many. Worldwide, more than a billion people have no access to improved water sources, while nearly two and a half billion live without basic sanitation. These people rank among the poorest in the world -- as well as the least healthy. In fact, the absence of a safe water supply contributes to an estimated 80 per cent of disease and death in the developing world."

The stand of the United Nations ?

I have no reason to believe that these words of Mr Annan were merely his personal views and did not represent were not shared by the global body that he was heading and representing while releasing this message, neither have I come across any public criticism from any quarter about these expressions made by the United Nations Secretary General who has not always remained free of controversy and criticism.

What does a Human Right mean anyway ?

Another reason of my view that this message was representative of the apex global body we refer as United Nations and not a personal rhetoric, gets strengthened from the statement of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in November 2002, in the 'General Comment No.15 of 2002' which declared water as a human right in following words.

“Water is a limited natural resource and a public good fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”

The term 'human rights' refers to rights that have been recognised by the global community in the 'Universal Declaration of human rights', adopted by the United Nations Member States in 1948, and in subsequent international legal instruments which are binding on those states. The General Comment is a device which has been used by the United Nations to amplify these rights. By admitting that right to water is fundamental to other rights is again stating the obvious. Without water there cannot be life, without clean water there cannot be health and without sufficient water there cannot be a life with dignity.

Reflection of Global Moral Conscience

The consensus on human rights reflects a global moral conscience. The adoption of water as basic human right vests a right in every individual that entitles him or her to a healthy and dignified life deserved by every human being irrespective of territory, wealth, religion, nationality and other loyalties. It also means that all responsible human beings and all the political and economic entities made by them will honour this right of fellow human beings and abstain from indulging in any act of commission or omission that may jeopardise this right of any human being on this planet.

Thus, agreeing to accept the need for water as a basic human right and arriving at a global consensus by formalizing this acceptance is a necessary step for developing a modern society that is based on respect for human life and dignity. In many ways, that was the very objective of the 'Universal Declaration of human rights' that adopted the concept of human rights in the first place. The only reason I can imagine for not including the right to water in the first place itself was perhaps because it amounted to stating the obvious, or maybe we never realised that a right that has largely been respected through the ages, and even in the medieval times, may not need to be formalized separately.

The Market Dynamics of Water

What the medieval humans failed to do, the traders of the modern world want to indulge in. The market dynamics and the property rights that come with it have created a view that the best way of optimizing resources is to assign property rights to all property. The logic is that once property rights are assigned, the owner will take care to protect the property and the wasteful consumption will be avoided. So far, so good. Having a price on water supplied to the homes is an outcome of this thought, and is very much acceptable.

What is not acceptable is to disregard the fact that water is not just a good, it is also a 'MERIT GOOD' deserved to be supplied to every human being, irrespective of his ability of pay, and irrespective of all the other market dynamics, struggles and wars that are a part and parcel of the modern trade warfare. In fact, even as per the accepted capitalistic economic principles of the day, the right to water can still not be sacrificed for either profits or economic efficiency.

The Economics of Water Pricing

In economics, the concept of 'pareto optimality' dictates that free market will ensure optimal production and distribution of any good. However, in case of 'merit good' like water, pareto optimality through free market dynamics can only be attained after a certain minimum quantity of clean and safe water is available to every individual. Unless that is done, the resultant social welfare and utility will always be sub-optimal and the net result will always be inefficient. This is the fundamental theoretical basis of accepting the right to water as a rationale economic choice that is essential to maximize social welfare, which is the primary objective of free market.

All that we have observed seems to suggest that right to water is an obvious choice. Yet on 26th March this year, a special resolution proposed by Germany and Spain at the 'United Nations human rights council' meet was stripped of references that recognized access to water as a human right, primarily due to resistance from the United States and Canada, who were adamant not to let the 'water as a right' come in the way of their resolutions in NAFTA which recognises water as a commodity and protects the rights of corporations to sell water.

As I said earlier, common sense is not so common.

The International Logjam

Water as a basic human right should not come in the way of commercialising water supply, provided the basic needs of people are not jeopardised by such trade, and in case they do get actually jeopardised, free trade or not, it is difficult to envisage any society, nation or people that will allow corporations to dwell in trade of water as a commodity and claim exclusive rights over it, when the local people suffer from insufficient availability of water. It is difficult to foresee such a situation, it is difficult to foresee it in a democracy and it is impossible to foresee any Government inviting such a situation by its actions.

Yet, this is what the governments of United States and Canada seem to be hell bent on doing during the last few years.

But the people are different!

As they say, common sense is not very common. Thankfully the people are not yet devoid of it, and so a look at any of the blogs or comments posted on the net by Canadian and American citizens will make it obvious that where the great expert policy makers are blundering, the common man, free from the corrupting influence of trading lobbies, is still very clear on what is good for the world.

It means that there is hope.

It also means that humans across the world care for each other. It means that we, as human beings in a developed society, have still not lost our souls to the profit making agencies, and it also means that common sense, though not so common, is not dead !

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