Implementing the human right to water

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Asit K. Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada

Policy Forum | February 21, 2017

Asit K Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada take a look at what it will take to ensure everyone in the world has access to safe water.

On 23-24 February, the Pontifical Academy of the Vatican is bringing together some of the world’s leading water experts from different religions, theologians and development specialists to discuss water as a human right. Pope Francis himself will participate in this discussion.

In 2015, the Pontiff issued a landmark encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si‘. This substantive document is addressed to “every person living on this planet with the expectation of entering into dialogue about our common home.”

In this historic document, the Pontiff asserts “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.” He also noted freshwater is “indispensable” for “supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.” Further, “Caring for ecosystems demands farsightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than economic benefits to be obtained…”

This is a fresh and welcome view that contrasts with the obfuscations of the international organisations during the last four decades. In 1977, all the UN agencies, including WHO, UNICEF and UNEP, as well as multilateral development banks like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, coined a term, “improved sources of water”. The main problem with this term is that it has absolutely no relation to the quality of water. In addition, international organisations have consistently used the three terms, “improved sources”, “clean”, and “safe” water, interchangeably.

As a result, the world now believes improved sources of water mean safe water. Even Ban Ki Moon has often used “improved sources”, “clean”, and “safe” water in the same statements interchangeably.

Additionally, the world accepts that “only” 663 million people do not have access to safe water, as claimed by WHO and UNICEF. The reality, however, is very different. At the very least, some 3.5 billion people in the world do not have access to water that is safe to drink, a figure that is more than five times higher than what is believed to be the case today.

Take South Asia, with a population of nearly 1.7 billion people. There is not a single city, town or village where people have access to safe water. Thus, unfortunately, the claim that the safe water Millennium Development Goal was achieved five years before the target deadline is meaningless.

Further, over the past 20 years, the world has witnessed two very unusual situations in developed and developing countries in terms of urban water supply. In developed countries, where water is safe to drink, people have steadily lost trust in the quality of water they receive. From the west European countries to the United States and Japan, increasingly more people are not drinking water from the tap. The use of bottled water has skyrocketed, even though it costs about 1,000 times more than tap water and both are safe to drink. More and more people are also using expensive point of use treatment systems to process tap water, which is safe to start with.

In cities like Singapore and Hong Kong, some 70-85 per cent of households boil tap water before drinking even though tap water is safe to drink.

In cities of the developing countries, the quality of water supplies has deteriorated steadily. In cities like Delhi, some 20 years ago, households used to have simple point of use treatment systems like filters. Now they have moved into more complex and expensive systems like reverse osmosis which was developed for sea water desalination. A problem with domestic reverse osmosis system is that nearly 70-80 per cent of water treated is wasted. It is thus not a good solution.

The Pontiff’s focus on “safe” water is a most welcome development. Let us hope this will result in the international organisations going back to the fundamental requirement, that is, provision of safe water to all. This will indicate that the number of people that do not have access to safe has been underestimated by a factor of at least five.

Another issue that has been much discussed is that when water is accepted as a human right, it must be provided free or at highly subsidized rates by the government. Surprisingly, food and health have been accepted as human rights decades before water. Yet, not many argue that food and medical services should be provided free to everyone or should be highly subsidised. Why then do so many politicians and NGOs argue that water provisioning should be free?

This is probably because we human beings have a special emotional attachment to water that is not the case with other resources. Thus, there has to be a real debate not only on what are the rights of consumers when we accept water is a human right, but also the related responsibilities. Experience shows free water leads to very inefficient uses of water including increased wastage. Water should be priced properly so that there is a sustainable financial model for proper operation, maintenance, updating and construction of new facilities for water and wastewater treatment systems. Hundreds of billion dollars will be necessary if every person in the world is to have access to safe water and proper wastewater treatment within the next two to three decades.

Concurrently, poor families should receive targeted subsidies so that they have access to a reliable water supply and wastewater treatment services. The subsidies could start, for example, when the water bill of a household exceeds 2 per cent of their income.

The eminent poet W H Auden said: “Thousands have lived without love, but no one without water.” We earnestly hope that the Pontiff’s interventions will go a long way to ensure that everyone in the world has access to safe water and sweep away once and for all the various myths, misinformation and misunderstandings of the last 40 years in this area.

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. National University of Singapore, Singapore. Cecilia Tortajada is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.