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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Water is not a right

The UN has passed a non-binding resolution declaring the access to clean water a human right. But what exactly is a right and what does it mean to have that right violated? A right is something inherent within any rational adult human being. A right is not something that can be given it can only be taken away.

Think about the classic example of the right to free speech. You have the ability to speak whatever you want. No one gave you that ability, you have it on your own. As long as no one uses force to stop you, anything that you want to say you can say.

By calling free speech a right nothing is being given to you except the protection of the courts against the government taking away your freedom. Basically, calling something a right is the leviathan limiting what the leviathan can do. Your rights are violated when the state ignores its own restriction and uses force against you for saying whatever you want.

How exactly does water fit into the same category?

Having water is not something inherent within the human ability. For millions of years our ancestors have had to struggle to find clean reliable water. Yet we are all born with the ability to express ourselves freely. Free speech is something within us and water is something we have to try and find.

Now think what it means to violate a ‘right’ such as water. If a man is stuck in the dessert with no water, according to the UN his rights are being violated. But who is violating his rights? Who is responsible for taking from him? God? Nature? Pure blind bad luck? Do you think we will be able to take any of them to court?

Jacob Mchangama makes clear what is really behind the water resolution:

For rights to have meaning, it must be clear what they are and who is responsible for upholding them. Take free speech: If a government arrests a dissident for peaceful statements or thoughts, it is breaching its obligation to uphold a clear human right. Courts would then be responsible for upholding this right.

The right to clean water and sanitation is far less definable and depends on economic development, technology and infrastructure. Above all, if people have a right to water and sanitation, other people must provide it – in practice, governments using public money. Such privileges are called “positive rights,” as opposed to “negative rights” that cannot be taken away from you. So this is really a call for state intervention, at the expense of other priorities and freedoms – and water is no more a practically enforceable human right than other essential commodities, such as food, clothing or shelter.

This resolution follows naturally from activists’ ideological resistance to the privatization of water. This ignores the countless examples, from Bolivia to Egypt, where governments have failed to provide clean water due to corruption, cronyism, mismanagement and waste. It also ignores successful private models in Bolivia, Chile, Denmark and elsewhere. Giving governments ultimate control over the supply of water may even be dangerous, because authoritarian regimes can use their power to punish the recalcitrant and reward their supporters.

Rights are about what a government cannot do, or about limiting government control. The UN resolution on water is about giving more government control. It is the opposite of what a true right should be.

Posted by Hugh MacIntyre on August 7, 2010 | Permalink


The UN has spent the last decade especially exposing how useless it is. It's morphed from being an international policeman to an international lobby group. It's time it was treated accordingly.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-08-07 10:03:50 AM

In the same way you're born with the right to speak your mind, you're also born with the right to get up on your own two feet and walk to wherever you can find water. Freedom of movement - that's one of the historic 'natural rights' too isn't it?

But if that right is taken away from you by government intervention - curtailing your free movement by setting up borders to keep you out, or by granting monopolies to their cronies - then isn't this also a violation of your rights?

In many cases, the only reason people don't have clean drinking water is because the government has done something to prevent them from getting at it.

A right to water could be considered a negative liberty too - in that it dictates some of what the government can't do. For example in times of drought, the government can't prevent you from leaving to find water, even crossing international boundaries to do so.

I don't think a right to water should stand as a right on its own. It's inherent in your right to free movement, your right to trade etc... But if the UN does want this thing to stand on its own as a separate 'right', then it does have some interesting consequences, not all of which are as statist as you're assuming.

Posted by: Robert Jago | 2010-08-08 12:31:02 PM

Actually, Robert, in most cases the only reason people don't have clean drinking water is because the water they do have is dirty. I would like to see proof of a government having told its people that they may not boil their drinking water under pain of death.

As for this “no prisons inside imaginary borders; rhythm of nature as our guide” bunkum, keep dreaming. Life is not a Figgy Duff album, and we are not nomads or hunter-gatherers. So I advise you to get used to the existence of national borders and the restrictions that go along with them.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-08-08 2:14:27 PM

Nothing more than another way for Africa to extort money and resources from the rest of the world. Water rights are closer to property rights than human rights. Not exactly the same, but not that far off. This will become more apparent when the supply starts to dwindle.

Posted by: dp | 2010-08-08 9:07:09 PM

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