Water — A Human Right?

Next year the United Nations’s ‘Water for Life’ initiative ends.

2005-2015 was labeled by the agency the ‘International Decade for Action Water for Life‘ and in 2010 the United Nations General Assembly declared water and sanitation a basic human right.

The issue of water being a right has been in the news recently.


Detroit river front. Image via HarshLight. (Flick Creative Commons)

In Detroit, a city struggling to bounce back from a deep economic depression, water has become a controversial issue.

The city’s water utility has been shutting off water to residential customers who are delinquent on their bills.

From the Detroit Free Press:

If you are more than two months late paying your bill, and owe $150 or more, the Water Department may send a “shutoff technician” to turn off the tap. In May, the department shut off water for 4,500 residents. In June, the number hit 7,210 customers.

Shutoff notices have reportedly been sent to commercial customers as well, though it appears the city hasn’t turned off the water as rapidly for businesses.

The NAACP has sued Detroit over the shutoffs, which have effected 15-thousand households in the metro area.

Sarah Kendzior, writing for Al Jazeera English, asks ‘Water is a right for all human beings. The question is: Who counts as a human being?’

Detroit is one of the poorest cities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Detroit is also surrounded by the largest supply of fresh water in the world. The US does not lack for money, and Detroit does not lack for accessible water. What Detroit lacks are people viewed as worthy of the compassion and resources given to their richer, whiter peers. They lack the rights and respect most US citizens take for granted.

Kendzior situates Detroit’s actions within the larger context of poverty in the United States while also explaining how ‘US citizens denied clean water often compare their situation with that of distant, disenfranchised lands.’

Among those lands is the Gaza Strip, which has had much of its water infrastructure destroyed in the recent Israeli airstrikes.

Back in the United States, Nestle has recently come under fire for bottling water in California. Specifically the company has been called out for continuing to bottle water on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians’ reservation while much of the central portion of the state struggles though a severe drought.

The issue of the water rights of Native American tribes was the focus of the recent Indian Water Rights Conference.

As conversations take place over who has a right to access clean water, the Guardian’s Suzanne McGee discusses the way companies are treating water as a commodity.

After spending nearly 30 years of my life writing about business and finance, including several years dedicated to the commodities market, the idea of treating water as a pure commodity – something to bought and sold on the open market by those in quest of a profit rather than trying to deliver it to their fellow citizens as a public service – made me pause.

All of this, of course, against the backdrop of climate change and what that phenomenon means for water.

Australia faces a massive water crisis in the western part of that country by the end of the century while some water deficient areas of Africa will only become more so due to the changing climate.

WBEZ — public radio in Chicago — recently brought fiction writers and scientists together to image life ‘After Water.’ Listeners get a look into what life might be like if their access to water was disrupted, or destroyed, and they can also learn about the science behind the stories.

Water is central to the work Framing Fellow Michael Mascarenhas is producing for Framing the Global. You can learn more about his approach to his research on our blog.

You can follow us on Twitter: @FramingGlobal.