Friday, February 11, 2011

Water, water.....everywhere?

Water is everywhere. It's all around us. Clearly, those of us who have access to fresh, clean water don't stop to think about how fortunate we are. We turn on the faucet, and out pours fresh, pure H2O. Sadly, however, this is not how it works for many across the world. Almost one billion people in today's world do not have access to fresh, sanitary water. In fact, more than 3.5 million individuals die each year from water sanitation-related issues, of which approximately 85 percent are children.

Today's water crisis isn't an issue of rarity, but rather it is an issue of access. In a world where more people have access to a cellular phone than a toilet, and as cities and slums grow, the issues of fresh water access is an ever increasing problem. Only 62% of the world's population has access to a sanitation facility that ensures security and cleanliness in local waters. When projects for clean water are undertaken, according to the Blue Planet Run Foundation, almost half of the projects fail due to lack of funding or other means of support. Less than 1% of the sanitation facilities in the world have long-term monitoring to ensure quality water is delivered to the people.

So, clearly, water and sanitation are essential to life. Water and sanitation have been formally recognized as human rights as they are indispensable for the the right to life, the right to health, and the right to dignity. In many countries, the people own the water. The state simply distributes the right to use the water so as to increase social capital. Conventional wisdom has stated that "water flows towards money". This saying perhaps provides hints to the real issue here: countries with weak infrastructures,  muddy politics, and deeply rooted corruption often play a part in this fight for clean water. Thus far, seventeen countries have amended their original constitutions to include a right to potable water.

How is restricting access to fresh water a human rights violation? Is it naive to hope that a right will lead to safely flowing faucets and wells in places where (in some locations) free speech can get you killed, where politicians give away state assets foolishly, and where sometimes police even solicit bribes from victims? Would society benefit from giving water to people in the form of property rights (i.e.- giving property rights to the water they already own as citizens)? And even then, are these rights vague or unenforceable? Why or why not?


  1. Stephen, I was waiting for someone to post on this controversial topic, and I’m glad you did. Your post was great in giving specifics and really helping the readers to understand the situation in the fight for clean water in several countries. It is hard to read the statistics knowing that they are true and that people, even at this very moment, are not able to have access to clean, fresh water. The fact that 85% of the 3.5 million individuals who die from water sanitation-related issues, are children, really hits me hard. Seeing these statistics really makes you want to do something and stand up for a right all humans should have available. However, like you said, “less than 1% of the sanitation facilities in the world have long-term monitoring to ensure quality water is delivered to the people.” I find this appalling. This is a one of the most horrendous violations to human rights and it is a violation that needs to be changed. I admit that you present a valid point in offering that this violation goes beyond the mere act of not making clean water available, with “countries with weak infrastructures, muddy politics, etc.” On the other hand, I do not believe that it is naïve to hope that a right will lead to safely flowing faucets and wells even in places where freedom of speech can get you killed, but I do think it is naïve to think that these countries can do it on their own and see the violation they are forcing on their people. Maybe I am too optimistic though.

  2. The issue of water supply is controversial and the numbers and statistics here are frightening. I think its important to take into consideration with the fight for clean water that we must also fight against the pollution that causes such scarcity with this resource. Some believe that global warming is to blame for the droughts, shrinking lakes, melting polar ice caps and reservoirs at all time lows. At the same time that these environmental crisis's take place the component of water pollution comes into play.

    The largest contributor for water pollution is caused by livestock production. Our water is being mixed with animal waste, antibiotics, hormones, fertilizers, and pesticides. I'm from North Carolina and while most people may not remember this incident but an eight-acre hog waste lagoon ruptured spilling 25 million galloons of manure in 1995. This incident was the largest environmental disaster until the BP Oil Spill. I find it strange how quiet this incident was kept in comparison to the BP one. It wiped out several acres of wetlands and fourteen million fish on the NC coastline.

    While this all may seem disconnected to Stephen's point animals need to be hydrated as well as humans. The process in which crops and animals are hydrated is polluting and reducing a resource that is in high demand. Eight percent of global water is used to hydrate animals and irrigate crops.

  3. I think it's important to note that there's something of a rhetorical slight of hand going on when it is noted that access to clean water is "indispensable for the right to life". While physically speaking, water is obviously a requirement for the maintenance of life, the "right to life" is traditionally understood as a prohibition of unjustified killing. In speaking of access to water as intextricable from that right, we have effectively moved from an absolute negative duty never to harm other human beings to a positive claim in favor of certain tangible benefits (which would presumably require water treatment plants, sewage systems, etc.). Such efforts, though they can be framed as advancing the goal of "life", are necessarily contingent on a great many factors (logistics, cost, technology) which are essentially amoral. As with other positive rights, the claim to have a "right" to a given good is of little use in procuring it.

    "What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics."
    - Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.