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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement on World Water Day

19 March 2021

French | Español

"Reflections and ethical proposals on water management from human rights-based approach"

On 22 March 2021, we celebrate World Water Day, a date dedicated to raising awareness of the 2.2 billion people living without access to safe drinking water. This year, theme of World Water Day 2021 is "valuing water", under the slogan #water2me and the guiding question, "what does water mean to you?". The values of water go beyond its economic value and, from a human rights perspective, encompass social, cultural and environmental dimensions. These dimensions require special attention when we think about public health and when we look at the profound relationship between water and nature. 

In 2021, we celebrate World Water Day and the different values of water at the juncture of two important points. On the one hand, the unprecedented crisis which the world is experiencing amidst the COVID19 pandemic: the COVID19 virus does not discriminate people and everyone is in need of sufficient access to water and hygiene products as a measure to prevent contradicting the virus. On the other hand, there is a movement to shift the value of water from a public good to a simple commodity, subject to speculation in the financial markets, particularly in the futures market. In view of this, the celebration of World Water Day is an opportune moment to reflect on the values of water.

When it comes to its form, water is always H2O, more or less pure; however, in view of its multiple uses, the values of water are seen and understood differently. Water has values that are linked to different ethical ranges and ultimately, the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation. For example, how to compare the value of water as the vital minimum necessary to ensure a dignified life, recognized by the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council as a human right, with the value of water needed to fill - legitimately - a swimming pool?

From my point of view, we should distinguish different ethical levels regarding the various uses of water: water for life, water of public interest, water for the economyand crime-water.

Water for life refers to the uses and functions of water that is necessary to sustain life in general and in particular the health and dignity of people, both individually and collectively. Such usage of water should be managed as a top level of priority.

At this level, the minimum essential amount necessary for sustaining life and dignity must be guaranteed first and foremost as a human right. Even in cases where household water and sanitation services cannot be provided, at least a public source of drinking water within 100 metres of the household must be guaranteed, in which case WHO (2003) estimates a supply of 50 liters/person/day as this minimum essential.1  In South Africa, in 2000, the government decided to fund 6,000 liters per household per month as a minimum essential amount. In Colombia, the Constitutional Court established that minimum at 50 liters/person/day. Undoubtedly, establishing this minimum essential is highly contextual and will depend on climates, cultures and ultimately on legal systems of each country, but in any case, when we refer to that minimum essential necessary to guarantee in each case the life and dignity of people, as a human right, I would like to emphasize that we are talking about amounts that represent a small percentage that does not reach 5 per cent of the water we extract from nature for various uses. No river or aquifer will dry up because we extract water needed to fulfil the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. Therefore, it cannot be justified that no one in the world has difficulties in enjoying this human right under alleged “scarcity arguments”, if we assume the principle of ethical priority that must be applied.

Not even the scarcity of financial resources should justify that the most impoverished do not have access to drinking water. In fact, many countries, when there were no means to provide household water and sanitation services, drinking water for all was guaranteed at least by giving priority to the public fountain with safe drinking water for all, in the square or in the neighborhood, near everyone's home. The key was and must be to assume the mandatory priority of guaranteeing at least these fountains, even before laying asphalts on the road or and installing lights on the streets.

This level of ethical priority, as water for life, must also include the water needed by communities in vulnerable situations to produce the food they need to feed themselves, water that is linked to the human right to food.  

And finally, water for life should include the necessary water, in quantity and quality, to preserve the health of rivers and aquatic ecosystems, a challenge on which effective access to safe drinking water for the most impoverished depends to a large extent, as well as fisheries, the protein base of the diet of many communities in vulnerable situations. Water functions linked in this case to the human right to a healthy and sustainable environment.

Water for public interest refers to uses, services and activities of general interest for society as a whole, should be managed at a second level of priority.

At this level, we would have, for example, domestic water and sanitation services, which account for about 10 per cent of the water withdrawn from nature, as a global average.2 Today, the extension of these domestic water and sanitation services, in addition to covering that minimum essential to sustain life and those basic services considered as human rights, offer levels of well-being that, being of general interest to our societies, should reach all neighbors, based on the assumption of the corresponding duties. The payment of tariffs would be, for example, one of these duties, although under social criteria that guarantee the affordability of these services for all. A tariff system by blocks of consumption at increasing prices could establish a very low cost in the first block, which would be free for families living in poverty, as the minimum essential amount considered as a human right; the cost of the second block could recover costs; and higher blocks should be made considerably more expensive in order to generate a cross-subsidy from sumptuary uses to basic uses. Such a tariff order contradicts the usual market logic, in which the cost is usually lowered for good customers who buy larger quantities in order to incentivize purchase and maximize profits. In this case, the objective should not be to maximize profits or encourage luxury consumption, but rather to guarantee excellent domestic services for everyone, as services of public interest, minimizing environmental impacts.

In this space, priority should also be given to productive uses and activities that are in the public interest, such as those generated by small and medium-sized farmers and ranchers. Productive activities that preserve the social fabric in many rural areas, as well as generate multiple socio-environmental services that market logic does not usually recognize or value, but which are of general interest to society as a whole.

Water for the economy refer to water in activities that generate profits and income for those who carry them out and activities protected by the legitimate right to improve our standard of living and wealth through work and business initiatives. 

Undoubtedly, it is this type of activity that generates the greatest demand for water, which flows withdrawn from nature, and which produce the greatest risks and impacts due to polluting discharges. Activities and demands that, in any case, should be managed from a third level of priority and under the strict principle of cost recovery, without any direct or cross-subsidy, based on the benefits generated by these activities. Unfortunately, economic power, often with the complicity of political power, ends up gaining priority and even public subsidies for this type of use, putting public health at risk, undermining the sustainability of ecosystems and sacrificing human rights.

Crime-water refers to uses in illegitimate activities that generate unacceptable impacts - due to overexploitation or discharges of hazardous substances - on public health and the ecosystems which in turn negatively impacts the availability, accessibility and quality of water and thus to the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. Uses and productive activities that, to the extent that they are illegitimate, should be illegal and effectively prohibited.

At all these levels, although we are always talking about water, priorities must be established, objectives must be clarified and appropriate management criteria must be promoted. We are talking about principles and ethical criteria that must underpin a democratic response to the challenge of ensuring sustainable and fair water management, based on the priority of guaranteeing the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, as well as the sustainability and health of aquatic ecosystems and life in this world.