Why Water Remains an Unfulfilled Human Right for Millions?

Access to Safe Water is Essential for Life & must be Available as Universal Human Right

Why Water Remains an Unfulfilled Human Right for Millions?
Image Source - Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Digging_for_drinking_water_in_a_dry_riverbed_(6220146368).jpg )
After nearly a decade of analysis, debate and consultation, the United Nations finally recognized safe drinking water as a basic human right in 2010. Yet, little seems to have changed on the ground level for more than 750 million people around the world, who are still waiting for it. With UN now adopting water as its theme for the next decade, we need more action. But will it happen?

Water is as essential for life as anything else. In fact, it is even more important than the notions of political rights like liberty, right of expression and freedom for religion, since none of these rights can be exercised by an individual unless he is alive and healthy enough to be able to meaningfully exercise them. The relationship between safe water and health needs little elaboration, for unsafe water is the primary cause of 88% of diarrheal morbidity and mortality, which claims over 800,000 lives of under five children every year, according to the Centre for Communicable Diseases.

The Problem: Not Less than a Genocide!

To put it simply, over 2000 young kids with a potential to live a healthy life for the next five to six decades die every day due to the lack of safe water facilities. Imagine how the world would have reacted if even a fraction of these kids were killed by some terrorists, political agencies or a dictatorial regime. Imagine how you would have reacted, if you were told that they are killing 2000 young kids every day!

Yet, the world sleeps over the death of same number of young humans, full of potential for leading a happy and productive life, with not even a murmur of disgruntlement at this prevailing and continuing human misery. May be it is because these deaths and suffering from the lack of access to safe water are a consequence of acts of omission rather than acts of commission, as happens in a more direct genocide.

But then, modern law considers acts of omission that are conducted with knowledge of their consequential violation of human rights, as criminal acts with a mens rea or an intent to hurt. By this logic, the deaths and suffering of innocent human beings resulting from a violation of their basic human right must be equated with criminal acts.

In a war, this would amount to a persistent genocide. There is no reason why this problem affecting millions across the world should be treated with lesser seriousness.

History of UN Recognition of Safe Water as Human Right

Way back, in 2001, the Secretary General of United Nations, Mr Kofi Annan, highlighted the need to recognize access to safe water as a basic human right, and how its lack is an affront to human dignity. Mr. Annan again expressed similar sentiments in the comments made by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in November 2002, in the ‘General Comment No.15 of 2002′ which said this while declaring water as a fundamental human right:

“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 use of the words ‘human right’ in a General Comment of a United Nations Committee emphasized that access to safe water was finally being recognized as a human right. This was a significant development. Declaration of a need as a human right means that it is so recognised by the global community, which should oblige one and all to respect and protect them by all possible means. These rights derive their sanctity by way of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, which was adopted by the United Nations Member States in 1948, and its subsequent international legal instruments, which make these rights binding on all states. United Nations uses the General Comment as a device to amplify these rights. By accepting that water is a basic human right, it accords the same importance to water, as is provided to any other human rights accepted by the United Nations.

2010 UN Resolution declaring Access to Safe Water as Universal Human Right

The Resolution 64/292 that was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 28 July, 2010 expressed with reference to access to safe water:

“The General Assembly,……

1. Recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights;

2. Calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, through international assistance and cooperation, in particular to developing countries, in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all;......”

With this resolution of General Assembly, the right to safe water is now fully recognized as a human right, and coming as it did, from the apex body of the broadest multilateral agency on the planet, must have raised a lot of hopes of concrete action to alley human suffering arising from this violation. The fact that Sustainable Development Goals also recognized this dire need for immediate action and aimed at an ambitious improvement seemed a great development as well.

Unfortunately, it does not seem to have changed much on the ground level even after almost a decade.

Why Access to Safe Water Remains a Distant Dream

While it is not possible to pin point the blame to any one single individual, institution or happening, the biggest culprit perhaps, is our highly hypocritical and largely unaccountable market driven global society as well as the States that are now largely dictated by its exigencies. This market driven economy, while emphasizing the allocation efficiency and its fruits for those who are a part of it, fails to take into account its limitations in dealing with those who are left and locked out of its party.

It also fails to realise that the inability of those left out to join the mainstream stems mostly from the lasting consequences of political legacies like colonialism, dictatorships, civil conflicts and misgovernance or the market failures arising from monopolies, monopsonies, lack of public goods and market driven externalities. All these ensure that pockets of extreme poverty with their unfortunate inhabitants are not allocated any resources in the absence of their ability to pay for them.

Markets do not address the inequality in endowments. So a market driven process can never address poverty. But then, protection of human rights is a responsibility of the State, and expenses on that account are always borne and should invariably be so borne out of public resources. If access to safe water still does not get a treatment at par with other human rights like protection of life, liberty and property, this is certainly an obligation not fulfilled.  At the ground level, it requires resources, as well as better technology, planning and its execution to expand access to safe water for everyone.

What More can be Done?

In March 2018, the General Assembly of the United Nations has, by its resolution 71/222 declared the period from 2018 to 2028 as the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development.  This is supposed to bring about an improvement in the cooperation, partnership and capacity development for achieving the goal of a wider access to safe drinking water.

While the United Nations takes the lead, it is for the humanity as a whole to stand up and take notice. There is something that everyone and anyone can do, and that is to raise a voice and make a call for greater coordination among the global community to heed to this persistent human right violation. Public opinion alone can enforce the authorities to allocate sufficient resources that are necessary for making a difference, and not leave it to market driven dynamics, which because of its inherent limitation, can never bridge this gap.

After all, the lives and suffering of those 2000 children dying every day should not go in vain. If nothing else, they should at least arouse our conscience!

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