Is water a fundamental human right?

An interesting and thought provoking discussion occurred when I shared this article on some social media sites:

Berners-Lee: Web access is a ‘human right’

“Access to the Web is now a human right,” he said. “It’s possible to live without the Web. It’s not possible to live without water. But if you’ve got water, then the difference between somebody who is connected to the Web and is part of the information society, and someone who (is not) is growing bigger and bigger.”

There really isn’t much to the article except to say that Berners-Lee (the guy who created the world-wide-web) gave a lecture at MIT about it and really, the quote above is about the only real content in the article.

I do agree that Access to the Internet is a right or should be. But I think it just as easily falls under the right to Education and access to Social Services (source: UN declaration of Human Rights). However, the real reason I shared this post was because I was shocked by the comments on the post. This is the top comment but there are lots in there:

The analogy is ridiculous - access to water is not a “human right”, nor should it be. Access to the Web? Even less so.

Illustrative point: we pay for access to water. You get a bill from the local water monopoly. It is NOT a free service. You must PURCHASE the “right” to the water, therefore it IS NOT and cannot be a “human right”.

My lizard brain went into rage mode. How can you not say water is not a human right? It seemed insane and inhuman to me.

But discussing it with a friend on twitter, Patrick Benson (@sinisterforces on twitter), I can see there is more to it than that.

My initial opinion has not changed but I wanted to express my belief or understanding more fully. Twitter isn’t the best place for these types of discussions, trying to fit complex ideas into packets of 140 characters is maddening. But it was thought provoking. Certainly I couldn’t get it out of my head for a few days.

First, I actually want to thank Patrick, despite disagreeing me, because he exposed my own assumptions and sense of entitlement which I have never realised before. In Ireland, at least, people assume water is free. They do not expect to pay for tap-water in bars or in restaurants and we would get very uppity about it if we did. If someone desperately needed water and came to my house, I wouldn’t have a problem giving him a glass of it or even bottle of it. Of course in Ireland it rains, a lot. It rains even when it’s sunny. We’re island really and the sea is never that far away. Water is practically free here because it’s plentiful. And hence I have a sense of entitlement that water should be free. And yes the government must maintain pipes, reservoirs etc. But I pay my taxes and expect my government to manage and provide this service. It is a privilege of living in the first world.

For example, I thought it was illegal for a restaurant or bar to charge for tap-water. My googling efforts show that is is not illegal, but that it’s bad business only. People expect free tap-water and charging for it will annoy customers.

Secondly because of my assumptions, I was utterly incapable of defending the idea, initially. I assumed everyone I knew was on the same page with this, common knowledge, common decency. But that’s not actually the case and I’m fumbling trying to the argue my side. I’m having to discover the problems myself and think through what it means. There is a lacking in my education. This stuff should make sense off the bat to me. And by way of that if anyone out there has more authority/expertise on the topic or you have articles that express either side more elegantly please feel free to share and comment. My ears are open.

Okay, I’m going to layout my thoughts on the question and then try to present the other side of it (however my perspective is framed by my own opinion, but I’ll try and keep objective about it) and then I’m going waffle a bit at the end. Here we go!

Human rights are not magic rules that empower people to get what they want. They are aspirations about what we think people deserve as human beings. Of course it’s very difficulty to satisfy everyone’s right. There is a balancing act between one person’s rights and another.

I own a bottle of water and you have a right to water. This does not mean you can take my water. Law, government and their policies are there to try and strike a balance between rights but to make sure, as much as possible, people’s rights are satisfied. Taking my bottle of water without asking or me agreeing is theft.

I honestly believe it is one of the responsibility of government to try and assure people’s rights are protected. If that means that some of my hard-earned money that I gained from employment must be taken away, say by taxes, and spent to support and help others so be. As long as such tax does not deprive me of my rights.

These means that a right to water is really a right to pursue water and food. You can’t take my water, but you can ask for it or we can come to a trade. If you can not pursue water because of poverty or illness then I would hope and expect that the government and charities step in to make sure you have at least the minimum of human decency. Shelter, clothes, food, etc. Without these few rights you cannot possibly avail of other rights like employment, education or freedom.

Perhaps I’m naive in this, but I hope this is true because the way the Irish bailout is going, with rates here going up and the middle class starting struggle (me included), we don’t want to think about where you might end up.

But alas I hear someone cry, there are people starving all over the world, there isn’t enough food to go around (sadly there is…), etc. And this is the harsh reality, you can’t fulfil everyone’s right, you can only try. Where governments fail because they are poor, divided, corrupt, etc. then others such as charities and aid packages from other governments must step in or be used.

And then you might say, where do you draw line? How can we decide what’s a fair quality of life that they can get for free? I’ll put it to you this way, if you think it’s not okay for us to let people die starving naked on the streets, then you have a pretty good idea what even the most basic level of quality is. And food is part of that most basic level.

But let’s play devil’s advocate. Let’s talk about the effort and work that goes into producing and managing a resource like water. People must work in distilleries. Pumps must be build and maintained. Pipes must be paid for and work must be done to lay them. To say someone has a right to water, does that mean this must all be done for free? A right to water cannot therefore be a right, because it would give them the right to take for free what others have paid for.

A right to water means another’s right to property must be removed. The two are not compatible.

I hope you can see what my answer to this? There is a conflict between one person’s rights and other. The right to water is more critical, for without water they will die. This doesn’t mean they should get it free. If they can pursue it, say by buying it, they should. If they can’t, due to poverty, discrimination, hardships, illness, etc. then some how it must be provided to them so they can live and hopefully eventually be able to pursue it fairly for themselves. The question is, to me, how do you provide it to them that’s fair?

Personally I wouldn’t have a problem with a government using some of my taxes to help pay for their water (as long as said taxes do not deprive me of my right to pursue water of course). Even if only charities provide this, I would still hope my government would help and support such charities (and also monitor them to prevent discrimination and abuse). It’s for the common good. Sure, there will be a few that would never be able to pursue water for themselves, but others will and we should do what we can to make sure they are able to. I don’t believe this should be entirely dependant on an act of charity.

Patrick suggested a thought exercise to demonstrate this other perspective. Two people; person A and person B. They are lost somewhere and they will die from lack of water. Thankfully Person A has brought one bottle of water with him. However it is only enough for him. If water is a right, shouldn’t person A give the water to person B?

The answer is no. This is morality play, there is no right answer here. Person A can drink the water and survive but possibly have to live with the guilty of letting Person B die. Or they can give the water to Person B and they die. Or Person A can share the water with Person B, hoping to save both of them and they both die. The right to water does not really come into play.

But let’s extend this morality play. Say Person A has two bottles of water. Does he have to share with Person B? Most of us would think of Person A to be very bad person if they kept the water and watched Person B die. But should they be punished? Should they be charged with a crime? (Is there such a crime in law?)

Or can Person A say, “I’ll give you this bottle of water, but then you must pay me something.” That sounds fair, but now Person A has all the power and can dictate a ridiculous price. Person B may survive but when they get back to civilisation they may be deprived of everything.

Which is fair? I mean if someone’s right to water is so fundamental, surely this should trump the right to property. Person B will die. Common decency and empathy would tell us Person A should share freely, but he is under no obligation to do so legally. And by giving up his property then shouldn’t he be compensated? Or does Person B have the right to take the water from Person A so that they may both survive? I honestly don’t have answer for this. Even if you replace “water” with “very expensive/rare vaccine”, you still have the same questions.

What if it’s not Person A or Person B. What if it’s neighbouring nations? Nation A has loads of water, more then enough for it’s people. Nation B does not have enough water and many of it’s people will die. Should Nation A give that water to Nation B? That would seem fair and human right?

But then Nation A invested a ton of money into building all those pipes to the sea, maintaining the reservoirs and filtering/purifying the water sot he population can drink it. The citizens have paid large taxes to make this happen. It employs thousands of people to maintain. Should that investment be given away for free? What would be the impact economically and socially to that nation if suddenly half of all that work was done for nothing?

(Perhaps, we can hope, that Nation A is kind. It’s people donate tons of money to the cause and they can cover the cost of giving water to Nation B. But what happens if this occurs next year and the year after? Will the outpouring of charity from Nation A continue? Do you think the people in Nation A can continue to support Nation B like this? And what would happen if Nation A is not kind, would it be right for Nation B to take it by force?)

I’ve always been curious about how charities work in or with commercial industries. Take for example an ad company who are asked by a big charity to create a marketing campaign for them, to help get water to Nation B and stop the disaster that’s about to happen. Does this ad company work for free or at a discount? They are so successful that other charities come their way. Should they do them all for free or a discount? Won’t that mean they’ll start losing money in the long term?

If we say water is a right, nay a fundamental right, what do we mean? Does it force others to supply water to those who can’t purse it for free? Does it justify force to defend that right?

Despite this, I still think water is a fundamental right. Economics, politics, the horribleness of human nature, cruelty of geography, nationalism, religion and all sorts of things conspire to make it difficulty to fulfil this. But it must be one we aspire to. Governments, who are also responsible to take care of their own people, do work to make sure their citizens have access or the ability to get water. And just because there is a balancing act between different rights of people, doesn’t mean we should get rid of that right just so that we have discrete non-conflicting rules. I said human rights are aspirations, hopes for all people. Water, food and shelter are critical to human life.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts