Water. Commodity or Human Right

“Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations.”
Fortune magazine, May 2000

It is indeed a challenging and exciting era for those involved in water resources. This means me as a water engineer, and of course everyone. There is allot of money to be made in water in the coming years.

What I have become increasingly aware of in the time I have been more involved is the increasing complexity of the issue. Not of the logistics and science but the ethics.

How does water get to your house? In many places here in New Zealand water is plentiful and if you have a good tank you can often gather enough for your self from what falls on your own roof. For those not so fortunate water must be piped or otherwise distributed. This may be from the nearby river, it may have to be transported thousands of miles. It is no secret that water supplies in many areas of the world are minimal, in fact, billions of people do not have basic access to clean drinkable water.

Increasingly, water costs to supply, in some places more than than the oil for your car, and while some are willing to pay, allot of us, although willing, have not the money.

Here is the great dilemma: Is water a fundamental human right or a tradeable commodity?

If a fundamental human right, who is to pay? If a commodity, how to pay?

I’m not here to present an argument solely for either as the answer is different in every situation and lies (as most do) in a balance between the two and some finer definition of the the ‘who’ and ‘how’.

What scares me whenever I come across this dilemma, is the way it seems to be going. Of course there are allot of interested investors out there, and increasingly water sources are becoming privatised. Sources that may have been freely accessible in the past (albeit paid for by the government) are now only able to be accessed by those with money up front. Pre-pay your water or go thirsty.

Of course i will be following this issue closely and for many of us it will be unavoidable. Will one day what the heavens provided be charged for or else? It used to be that anyone could take what he needed from the nearest river but this is no longer so. At the moment I can open my mouth and let the rain wash in, i can collect it on my roof. Is the day coming when I will have to pay the company with rights to the rainfall over my district for the privilege?

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.

Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General.

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and
well-being of himself and of his family.

Article 25, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable,
physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.

General Comment 15 on the right to water, adopted in November 2002 by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, World Health Organisation

Some interesting links.

World Water Council
WHO (on water as a Human Right)


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