This week, the UN declared water and sanitation a human right, but since that is not going to improve water scarcity around the world tomorrow, here is a glimpse at what it will mean—with some generous insight from Ned Breslin of Water for People.
Will governments be required to ensure access to clean water? Will it have to be free?
Maybe—and no. Water is now officially a human right, but it remains to be seen what that will mean in practice. Governments may change how they manage and distribute water, but there are no set rules or guidelines on what that should look like.
Ned Breslin from Water for People says it is important not to succumb to the notion that water as a right means it should be free. Treating and delivering water are both services that come at a cost, he points out, and someone has to pay for them. (He highlights a case study on his blog that illustrates a successful model for municipal water services in Bolivia.)
The concept of free access to water undermines issues of sustainability. "Rights will only be realized if the delivery of water is sustained over time. Otherwise it's a meaningless right," Breslin said, adding that the world's experience with free water has been disastrous because pipes erode, systems break down, and no one is there to fix them. Whether there will or should be a cap on costs for citizens in developing countries (or anywhere) is a question that has to be worked out, but generally speaking, costs have to be "linked" to the technologies that are supplying the water.
Will the recognition of water as a human right slow the privatization of water by international corporations?
There is a widespread concern among activists like Vandana Shiva and Maude Barlow over increasing corporate control of water resources around the world, and it is not clear how the UN resolution will play out in local management of resources. Breslin is less concerned about corporations going overseas looking to buy control of water—he thinks water companies have realized not much money is to be made in doing that, and they are more interested in management contracts than outright ownership—but the bigger question might be allocation of water resources, which until now has been sort of a free-for-all.
Pepsi's use of water in India, for example, is the kind of scenario that will present big question marks that have to be answered. As Breslin said, "there's no question that water quantity and quality are changing for the worse around the world," and what this declaration will do is "force countries to deal with the allocation of scarce resources. They will really have to make hard decisions between household supplies, industry, and tourism—and it's a really overdue debate."
Who gets to make all of these decisions?
Another wait-and-see. The UN has played a large role in the ongoing discussion thus far, but outcomes will depend on what individual countries determine is the best method of implementation. Breslin said the picture on the ground will vary from country to country and maybe even within countries. The challenge now lies in making the switch, "from promoting this right to making it real."