“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water” – W.H. Auden
Water is a fundamental necessity of all living things. It marks the source around which humans first settled. For generations upon generations, the human relationship to water has been based on free access. But today we are witnessing a change in that bond as dams are being built, local water springs privatized and water resources dried-out owing to environmental damage. How societies and politicians take a stand in the water issue is becoming increasingly important as the privatization of water becomes more widespread and more topical. We are now faced with many questions: Should it be possible to claim a river as a possession? Can water sources like lakes be privatized to distribute and sell the water to the same people who have been living freely on the rivers for generations? Should anyone have the right to own our planet’s water? And if so, then who?
The number of people around the world who are being served water from privatized water sources is rising steadily. The market of water is a goldmine for private companies as the demand on fresh water will probably always be high due to the essential values of water in our day-to-day life. And while 1 in 6 people worldwide lack access to drinking water from a improved water source, the people advocating more extensive privatization of water argue that companies are not in the water-business only to make money, but also to quicken the process to give more people access to water from improved water sources. As some governments can not afford the infrastructure of pipes and pumps that is necessary to distribute water across their countries, or by any other reason performing public utilities poorly, the private sector in most cases both have the money and knowledge that is needed. Therefore, privatization has by some organizations been considered a more efficient solution to the issue of access to drinking water from improved water sources.
But in recent years, the UN and other significant players in international affairs have raised the water issue to a global level. First, in 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognized the human right to water and sanitation by extending articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to also include the right to water. The Committee stressed that everyone should be entitled to water and sanitation that is, amongst other things, affordable and accessible.
Then, in 2005, the UN General Assembly declared the decade stretching from 2005-2015 International Decade for Action as a part of the “Water for Life” campaign. The initiative set up goals, to be met by 2015, similar to the “Millennium Development Goals”. According to the Millennium Development Goals report from 2012 access to improved water sources (such as public taps or dug wells protected from contamination) has increased steadily over the years and has now reached 89 percent of the world’s population. That being said, there are still approximately 780 million people worldwide without access to drinking water from an improved water source. In 2010, the UN General Assembly followed the path laid by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by proclaiming that all human beings have the right to affordable and accessible water. Even though the UN has stated that the cost of “affordable” water should not exceed 3 percent of ahousehold income, the choice of words sets the standard that water is a commodity. Due to involving costs, the right is not absolute.
So who makes the decisions of who owns water sources? Rivers and underground streams often continue their paths past the borders separating countries, making it difficult to justify leaving states alone to decide how a water resource is used. And then there are companies and other private parties who are often involved in the ownership of water resources, but can they be trusted with this kind of power? Even though access to food is also a human right recognized by the UN, humans do overwhelmingly buy food from private entities. But the right to use water freely still gives us the freedom to grow our own food.
Environmental groups and other social actors like the UN have stressed that fresh water is a resource that needs to be safeguarded as severer scarcity of water is expected in the future. If the market is left to decide who gets access to water, can anyone guarantee access in not so profitable places—like small, remote villages—where a large percentage of the inhabitants might be poor? And even though the UN is the closest institution we have to a world government, which could make decisions regarding a resource as important as fresh water, UN member-states often do not implement the General Assembly’s resolutions.
Many questions remain unanswered: Is it possible to reduce the economic and social gaps between countries if we live in a world where access to fresh water is not viewed as a common good And how long will our planet’s freshwater sources last if they are not treated as necessities to which we all have an equal right. Water is a scarce resource. That is a fact that we must accept. But it is a scarce resource that is also a common good. It is also a resource of essential value to all human life.