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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2012

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Exploring the Textured Landscape of Water Insecurity and the Human Right to Water

The Contours of Global Water Insecurity

he last decade has seen historic advances in the formal establishment of the human right to water and global agreements on development goals that target improved access to water and sanitation. However, clean and safe water and sanitation and the legal protections afforded by the expansion of the human right to water have not reached billions of the world's poorest people and communities. Worldwide, 1.1 billion people—1 out of 6 in the global population—still have inadequate access to drinking water, and more than twice as many—2.5 billion people—have inadequate access to safe and clean sanitation. Often those who have access to water may not be able to afford it.

Globally, access to water is not smooth and universal, but is textured and uneven across the spatial and socioeconomic landscape. The map of access to clean water and sanitation is highly variegated by region, country, urban/rural characteristics, gender, age, class, and ethnicity, leading to a complex sociospatial “waterscape.” The gap in water use is stark: Developed nations use an average of 400–500 liters a day per person, while in developing countries the volume is just 20 liters.1 Worldwide, 1.1 billion people practice open defecation and millions more share inadequate sanitation facilities.2

The global South—especially Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia—lacks access to clean potable water and sanitation relative to other world regions. Indigenous communities worldwide also disproportionately lack access to clean water.3 Climate change projections indicate future challenges related to water could make our current problems even worse, as already-vulnerable regions experience drought and desertification, loss of traditional crops, and other anticipated impacts.4

Nairobi, Kenya – August 31, 2009: Members of a rural farming community meet to discuss a sand dam project that will help preserve rain water, allowing year round access in the event of a drought. Sand dams are community initiatives that prevent water from disappearing to the ocean during the rainy season, acting like a large sponge to hold the water for future use.

Nairobi, Kenya – August 31, 2009: Members of a rural farming community meet to discuss a sand dam project that will help preserve rain water, allowing year round access in the event of a drought. Sand dams are community initiatives that prevent water from disappearing to the ocean during the rainy season, acting like a large sponge to hold the water for future use.

Often women and children are hit the hardest. Among children, 1.4 million die each year as a result of diarrhea, primarily targeting very young children under 5 years of age.5 Women and girls are responsible in many parts of the developing world for collecting water from distant water sources, and while this activity plays an important role in women's social lives, studies have shown girls' educational attainment is curtailed due to this responsibility. Women and girls are also subject to violence due to poorly designed or located latrines for sanitation purposes.6

In this article, we explore what progress has been made by the international community to address the inequity and insecurity of access to water worldwide. We use the term “access” to refer to people's ability to use water that is available, affordable, safe, and clean. Insufficient access results in a condition of water insecurity. Access to available, safe, and clean sanitation is also integral to human water security. We chronicle stories of places where communities working with governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and development aid have begun to address these challenges and fulfill the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and human right to water. We pay particular attention to success stories where greater access to water has been achieved and challenging projects and activities that have yielded more mixed results. We ask: What synergies exist between the MDGs and the human right to water? In answering this question, we uncover mismatches between the MDGs and the human right to water reflecting the uneven contours of water insecurity across the world. The human right to water is a potent goal that has not (yet) been realized in practice, due to a mismatch in development practices and international accords and a lack of capacity in the human right to water to directly effect change on the ground. We first outline the MDGs and human right to water—two significant international arenas of action around water.

The MDGs and the Human Right to Water

Adopted in 2000 by the United Nations (UN), and joined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the G7 and G20 countries, and representing the joint political commitment by 189 nations, the MDGs aim to decrease world poverty by half by 2015.7 Target 7C aims to halve the proportion of world population without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015 and to extend basic sanitation. Since the MDGs were adopted, developing nations, development banks, NGOs, and UN agencies, among others, have been aligning their development priorities with the goals. Participating countries have agreed to report back on progress on the status of country-level efforts to the UN.8 Critics of the MDG approach argue that the MDGs do not address underlying social and power inequalities that limit the democratic participation of large sectors of the population, including low-income people, women, and workers.9

Indigenous leader at protest in New York City over Belo Monte Dam in Brazil.

Indigenous leader at protest in New York City over Belo Monte Dam in Brazil.

The MDGs, along with a growing dissatisfaction with many neoliberal reforms in the water sector, such as privatization of services, and large dam projects, have played a key role in the emergence of the debate on the right to water.10 The right has been declared at various international conferences since the 1970s, and may be implicitly derived from the core human rights treaties of the UN.11 In the past decade, nongovernmental and development organizations have specifically called attention to a “human right to water”—or household water for basic needs such as drinking, cooking, and other domestic needs.12 To better clarify what is meant by this right, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights drafted General Comment 15 (2002), which has been adopted by 155 countries.13

In 2010, the UN took unprecedented action and affirmed the right to water and sanitation as a basic human right. First, in July, the UN General Assembly declared safe and clean drinking water and sanitation a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights. The resolution itself, the result of lobbying by many NGOs and leadership from some key developing countries,14 was historic—marking the first formal declaration by the UN General Assembly on water and sanitation. Then in September, the UN Human Rights Council affirmed the right, making it equal to all other human rights and legally binding and enforceable in existing human rights treaties.

Mapping Progress

Mapping progress on resolving global water insecurity problems is a bit of a bumpy ride. Just as the global waterscape is sociospatially uneven, the range of solutions to address water insecurity is highly variegated, due to the multiple scales of management and governance, types of donor aid and organizations, and specific political and economic contexts around the world. Next, we explore what progress has been made on the MDGs and the human right to water by examining both broad trends and case-specific developments.

What Progress Has Been Made on the MDGs?

Progress around Access to Water and Sanitation

Most analysts agree that the world is on track to halve the number of people living without access to clean drinking water by 2015. In a 2010 study by the Overseas Development Institute, access to safe drinking water improved in 82% of the countries (92 out of 112) between 1995 and 2008.15 Approximately 87% of the world's population uses drinking water from improved sources—or some 5.7 billion people worldwide who are now using drinking water from an improved source, an increase of 1.6 billion since 1990, according to a UNICEF and WHO report.16

Yet the world is not on track to meet the MDG sanitation goal. Only 61% of the world's population uses improved sanitation facilities and 2.6 billion people lack them, mostly in Asia. Between 1990 and 2006, the proportion of people without improved sanitation decreased by only 8 percentage points.17 Some suggest that sanitation is the “most neglected and off-track” of the MDG targets.18

Although there has been great progress in Latin America and Eastern and Southeastern Asia, and some highly populated countries, like China, India, Brazil, and Mexico, have achieved some targets around access to water, progress has been slower in poorer regions of the world. Considerable challenges around access to clean water and sanitation remain for Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where the average level of access is at 68%, the lowest among all developing regions.19 Not surprisingly, many of the improvements in providing safe water and sanitation have occurred in cities, while improvements in rural areas have lagged.20 Governance strategies that were regarded as panaceas to resolve issues of water insecurity—such as integrated watershed management and local participation—have been criticized in part because they fail to pay sufficient attention to the complex cultural and political contexts in which water struggles are embedded.21

Innovations in Water Alternatives

Target 7C of the MDGs is to halve the number of people without access to water and sanitation by 2015. Improved access to clean water and safe sanitation intersects with other MDGs, such as reducing infant and child mortality rates. But how are people to achieve these goals? The answers may lie in new governance strategies, appropriate technologies, and soft-path solutions. Current thinking on water governance focuses on understanding how water resources are embedded within complex sociopolitical systems and have cultural and social, as well as economic, value. The quality of the water management context matters.22

Transitions in governance arrangements need the support of strong state institutions and competent water management agencies.23 Digging deeply into these systems may reveal potentialities hitherto unexplored, including visionary community leadership capacity and the potential for innovative institutional arrangements involving strange bedfellows—communities with the state; communities with the private sector, or with a donor agency—rather than traditional single-actor governance. While there has been a huge backlash to the pure privatization initiatives of the 1990s, many believe the private sector—under enhanced government regulation and, potentially, hybrid management models—is likely to remain an important actor in resolving global water insecurity.24 In addition to governance innovations, emerging technologies that are appropriate to their cultural context may be integral to extending water security. In some cases where great hopes had been ascribed to emerging technologies, increased experience has led to a re-evaluation and scaling back of reliance on them, with a realization that results are more mixed. Finally, soft-path strategies hold promise for reducing demand and better management of existing water resources.

A New Frontier in Co-Management?: Community-Run Water Systems in Cochabamba

Once the testing ground for neoliberal water policies supported by the World Bank, Cochabamba, Bolivia today is well known for its community-run water systems.25 The third largest city in Bolivia, Cochabamba became famous in 2000 for initiating street protests over water privatization and price increases that became known as the “water war” when the police violently crushed the protests, killing a teenager and injuring dozens. At issue also was opposition to the new Bolivian Water Law 2029 that gave monopoly rights over water to a private operator.26 The strength of the protests ultimately forced the government to cancel its contract with the Bechtel Corporation.

Since 2004, in the southern zone of Cochabamba, water has been successfully managed by a host of 120 water committees operating under the aegis of the Association of Community Water Systems of the South (ASICA-Sur). As a result, a new public-community, or “communitarian,” model of co-management has emerged, serving 30% of the southern zone's water users; the remaining 70% buy water from vendors. As the Americas program reports, “Now that the State has entered the picture, new debates arise … what would happen to the community water systems?”27 By 2009, three big water projects were being implemented in the southern zone, two of which were under the control of the municipal government utility, and a third effort under the co-management model.28 Cochabamba's co-managed systems in the water sector represent an exciting frontier in what Lemos and Agrawal call “hybrid modes of governance” that establish new kinds of partnerships across the state–market–community divide, including co-management, public–private partnerships, and state–private sector cooperation.29 These emerging models may result in more effective provision of water to people and avoid the pitfalls associated with single-actor governance arrangements.

Making Technologies Sustainable

A water pumping system that uses merry-go-rounds instead of traditional hand pumps to move the water in African villages sounded too good to be true—in fact, it was too good to be true. Initially hailed as a low-cost, culturally appropriate technology developed by an entrepreneur for use in South Africa, 900 PlayPumps® International (PPI) systems had been installed in South Africa (90%), Mozambique, and Zambia by 2007, with plans for rapid expansion throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The technology won a World Bank award. But a 2007 UNICEF report pricked a hole in the belief in PlayPumps® as a sustainable technology when they reported that the pumps had frequent breakdowns with insufficient repair services, required excessive hours of children's play to operate, and were expensive relative to traditional hand pumps30. Some media outlets (such as the PBS program Frontline) and private foundations (e.g., the Case Foundation) have had to backpedal on their initial uncritical enthusiasm for PlayPumps®.31

On the basis of its findings, UNICEF's policy shifted to support of PlayPumps® systems only in larger schools and on new borehole sites rather than in villages. Used appropriately, PlayPumps® are now having good results—with one audit by an NGO that installs PlayPumps® only at schools reporting that 96% of its sites were working well and providing water for school use and irrigation for growing vegetables.32 The PlayPumps® narrative illustrates the need to tweak emerging technologies and refine them for use in the most appropriate contexts, rather than hail them as a one-size-fits-all solution based on slick marketing. Today, as the implementing NGO for PlayPumps®, Water for People now offers PlayPumps® as one choice among many in the portfolio of choices it offers to communities.

At the same time, the advance of this technology under the auspices of a nongovernmental aid organization—as well as the Cochabamba case already described—both point to the unevenness of government-provided solutions to water insecurity. In poor areas of Cochabamba, marginalized neighborhoods have gone decades off the municipal water grid, and much of the city continues without access to water today. In rural areas of Mozambique and Zambia, the state is abrogating its role as provider of water services, leaving a breach that the nongovernmental sector has stepped in to fill. The development of new modes of providing water services does not mean the state can rightfully step back from the mandate to provide such services to its citizens.

Once the testing ground for neoliberal water policies supported by the World Bank, Cochabamba, Bolivia, today is well known for its community-run water systems.

Once the testing ground for neoliberal water policies supported by the World Bank, Cochabamba, Bolivia, today is well known for its community-run water systems.

Soft-Path Solutions

Soft-path solutions have been advocated by the Pacific Institute33 and others as a means of avoiding expensive technological fixes, such as new infrastructure, while improving water efficiency and equity. The core of the soft-path philosophy is that utilities should focus on meeting water users' needs, rather than on just supplying water. Soft-path solutions promote the use of various types of water—including storm runoff, treated effluent, and gray water—for appropriate kinds of needs. Ecological health should be factored into water planning, and water suppliers need to work closely with users and community groups to ensure needs are being met.

Making water service meet human and ecosystem needs creates more efficient use of water. For example, soft-path strategies include a range of water-saving technologies for irrigated agriculture, such as micro-sprinklers and drip-irrigation, and in households, low-flow toilets and rainwater harvesting systems.

What Progress Has Been Made on the Human Right to Water?

The right to water, according to General Comment 15, implies various obligations on the part of governments, including the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the right.34 This includes positive requirements, such as obligations for governments to promote and provide water, as well as negative requirements that suggest protection against interference.35 Efforts have been underway to bring national laws into line with the General Comment 15 in many parts of the world. Several European, African, and south Asian governments have explicitly recognized a human right to water through national legislation and in their constitutions.36 Under pressure from activists for constitutional reform, Uruguay has gone the furthest to establish the state as the sole responsible and accountable water manager in the country, precluding private-sector participation in the Uruguayan water sector.37 Recently, Mexico advanced a constitutional amendment, guaranteeing to its citizens the rights to clean and sufficient water and the right to a clean environment.38 In some parts of the world, including South Africa and India, we are beginning to understand what the human right to water looks like in practice as judicial enforcement of the right unfolds at the national level.39

A farm labourer manually sprays water onto a crop of garlic using a primitive wicker water scoop. Chiang Dao, Thailand, on November 20, 2011

A farm labourer manually sprays water onto a crop of garlic using a primitive wicker water scoop. Chiang Dao, Thailand, on November 20, 2011.

Water Service Protests and Litigation in South Africa

South Africa represents one of the earliest countries to explicitly recognize the human right to water in their Constitution as well as groundbreaking post-apartheid water legislation introduced in 1997 and 1998.40 Recently, in 2009, with Mazibuko v. City of Johannesburg, South Africa's highest court ruled on the right to water in the country's first test case on the right. The case involved the legality of Operation Gcin'amanzi, a 2003 project in Phiri, one of the poorest suburbs of Soweto outside Johannesburg, to address water losses and nonpayments by installing prepaid meters to charge consumers in excess of the 6 kilolitres per household monthly free basic water allowance.41 Five women of Phiri suburb argued for their right to a larger supply of free municipal water and for abolishing the installed prepayment meter system, which represented not only a threat to both dignity and health, but also a risk to life.42 The case centered on Section 27 of South Africa's post-apartheid constitution, which articulated a right to access sufficient water, as an attempt to address historic inequalities and a vast lack of access to water.43 In its ruling, the Court held that Section 27 of the country's constitution did not guarantee a minimum level of basic water supply per person, but that the human right to water places an obligation on the government to take reasonable and other legislative measures to seek the progressive realization of the right, or to “work towards universal and adequate service.”44

In the aftermath of the Mazibuko ruling, the City of Cape Town initiated a campaign to introduce water management devices—meters programmed to dispense a daily, pre-agreed amount of water—in townships, in an effort to reduce perceived household water wastage.45 Grassroots organizations and labor unions have united in opposition of the meters.46 This social mobilization bears striking similarity to the mobilization that occurred in the Mazibuko case, where the Coalition against Water Privatisation, a collection of community organizations struggling against the negative effects of privatization practices on the poor, joined with both international and local human rights NGOs, represented by the international NGO Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions along with the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand. Jackie Dugard, human rights activist and Executive Director of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of Social Africa, argues that public interest litigation, as one tactic in the broader social movement in South Africa, has played a positive social role by helping to influence public perception and destabilize power relations.47 Such efforts operate in parallel with the work of other local and regional NGOs working with communities at the local level to support the delivery of water services in rural and peri-urban areas through community management and community-based water services.48

Despite the right to water in the case of South Africa's Constitution, large-scale disconnections and inequities in distribution still exist—and fail to be picked up by the MDG indicators.49 Municipal service delivery protests have been commonplace in recent years, with growing violence and citizen discontent with water and sanitation services.50 Although access has expanded in South Africa over the past decade,51 those living in informal settlements have to wait more than a decade before they can have an adequate amount of water, owing to the long waiting lists for upgraded housing.52 According to Larry Swatuk, a long-time scholar of South African water politics, “Despite the great strides made in revising South Africa's water laws and policies, implementation that is true to these ideals is proving more difficult.”53

India and the Battle with Coca-Cola

In the absence of a human right to water guaranteed in the national constitution, states can derive the human right to water from other constitutional provisions. Argentina, for example, derives the right to water from the right to a healthy environment.54 Although India's Constitution does not directly recognize the right to water, its judiciary has broadly interpreted Article 21 of the Constitution, which recognizes the right to life, to include the right to safe and sufficient water. Public-interest litigation has served as a catalyst for the courts in India to develop extensive jurisprudence around the right to water, resulting in a broad set and diversity of judicial opinions associated with a right over the past few decades.55

In recent years, controversies and legal rulings around Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Plachimada, in the state of Kerala in southern India, have attracted international attention. The plant has been shut down since 2004 as a result of a community-led campaign, characterized by round-the-clock vigils outside the factory gates, in protest of groundwater depletion and pollution as a result of the plant's operations. Farmers near the plant complained that the local water table dropped drastically due to the plant and that toxic chemicals seeped into their soil, making it infertile. Women in local villages complained of long journeys to fetch water.56 After the village council revoked Coca-Cola's license as a result of these problems, a series of legal battles and judicial rulings ensued.57

In 2011, the state legislature of Kerala set up a claims tribunal where people who claim they were hurt by Coca-Cola bottling operations can seek compensation from the company.58 The plant is accused of environmental contamination, soil degradation, and water contamination due to overextraction of groundwater leading to drinking-water scarcity and decline in agriculture due to disposal of sludge, which is said to have affected the health of people, causing skin ailments and breathing problems.59 The local community organization, the Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee, which brings together environmental and social activists, continues to press to recover compensation from Coca-Cola and prosecution for environmental contamination and pollution.60 Controversies and community protests are erupting in other parts of India where Coca-Cola bottling plants remain active. A poignant lesson from the Coca-Cola case in India is the power of the local community to work in tandem with the local government to challenge corporate and national governmental practices.61

Yet controversies like this highlight the larger struggles that farmers face today in India over depleting water resources and increased demand from rapidly growing cities. Tom Palakudiyil of Water Aid, an international NGO working on access to clean water and sanitation, describes it this way: “What we have seen happening with Coca-Cola has been happening all over the country, largely between the well-to-do and the not-so-well-to-do. The richer side is able to acquire powerful pumps and extract more and more water with no limits. In the case of big corporations like Coca-Cola, or other big industries that have a lot of power over the local government, they are able to get their pipelines to bypass the villages altogether.”62

This protest site in Plachimada in the state of Kerala in India was established in 2001. The Coca-Cola plant was shut down in 2004 as a result of community opposition, although the protest site still exists today.

This protest site in Plachimada in the state of Kerala in India was established in 2001. The Coca-Cola plant was shut down in 2004 as a result of community opposition, although the protest site still exists today.

Overcoming Barriers and Moving Forward

In exploring progress around the MDGs and the human right to water, we uncover how innovations in addressing water problems create space for hope that emerging governance models, “soft-path” strategies, and alternative technologies will yield better future solutions. In addressing the specific contours of the global “waterscape,” we find a mismatch between legal codes that formalize the human right to water and actual development practices on the ground. Ultimately, we discover that the landscape of global access to clean and affordable water and sanitation is improving, yet textured and uneven.

Fiscal and Political Barriers

In part, this textured and uneven landscape is the result of fiscal constraints. Internationally, donor aid around the MDGs has fallen short of actual pledges, in part as a result of the international financial crises of recent years.63 In some communities around the world, particularly in South Africa, decreases in financial and technical support from national governments have hindered implementation at the local level despite a strong national commitment and constitutional right to water there.64

Some suggest that it is not a lack of resources, but rather a lack of political will that explains uneven progress. Pedro Arrojo, a leading activist around the ethics of water use and a Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, argues that providing water for people's basic needs is within reach of every national economy.65 Water scholars such as Helen Ingram and Erik Swyngedouw argue that patterns of global water access are intricately linked to political power within and between regions.66 Although governance innovations like integrated watershed management have been tried over the last two decades, Ingram argues they have been unable to resolve intransigent inequities in water accessibility. The political willingness to address development disparities must fundamentally shift for progress to be made.

Next Steps Forward

Given the trends and barriers we uncover in this research, we highlight two important steps in the path forward to addressing water insecurity across the world. First, we call attention to the need for greater synergies between the MDGs and the human right to water. Our research suggests how legal and constitutional frameworks are debated and played out on an international stage (e.g., UN) or national stage (e.g., South Africa's Constitution), while development projects are implemented at very local levels (e.g., village, community), as the co-management and water technology examples illustrate. Legal and constitutional changes speak to international lawyers, senators, and national-level delegates, while changes in development practice speak to local communities and nonprofit organizations. Like ships passing in the night, these two discourses do not relate sufficiently to one another and are not integrated with one another in national development plans.67

Second, the human right to water lacks certain critical capacities. For example, a constitutional amendment proclaiming a human right to water does not fit well with the messy struggles of ensuring access to water and sanitation on the ground. The human right to water is ill-equipped to resolve conflicts among competing users of water resources or to sort out power differentials in society that characterize water insecurity. The human right to water has a universal reach within the society that recognizes it in principle, but not in practice; the society is not able to flatten out the uneven waterscape that often provisions urban areas disproportionately over rural areas, or industrial users over neighborhoods. For example, in Uruguay, where there has been considerable constitutional reform around the right to water, Carlos Santos, a leading activist summarizes the progress this way: “If the official figures confirm that potable water service to households has been maintained and increased—demonstrating that public water service is not worse than potentially privatized service—there nevertheless remain people without access to potable water, including where the state-run water utility (OSE) provides service, for example, in the poorest zones of Montevideo. On the other hand, if we understand the reform as a rejection of profit-making in potable water and sanitation service, then the reform has been positive.”68

Reports on countries' progress toward the MDGs seldom mention the human rights framework, even when a given country had such protections in its constitution. We suggest that the linkages between these two spheres need to be more explicit and intentional, so that development practice is stretched to uphold the lofty goals of providing clean water and sanitation for all citizens, while international and national human rights officials are challenged by grassroots organizations to strengthen and enforce legal protections. Integrating human rights into an MDG project has the potential to improve access to water and sanitation and minimize inequities. The human right to water can renew efforts for states to address and provide basic water needs of their people, and help prioritize financial investments.69 Human rights monitoring institutions add an important accountability element to help identify discrimination or exclusion. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and long-time advocate of a human right to water, states: “I'm not naive enough to think that simply declaring the human right to water means we'll solve all of our water problems quickly. But it is a tool, it is a weapon to use to meet basic human needs for water, to help meet water challenges. And I think it is a step in the right direction.”70

Despite these larger constraints, there is some indication that a few countries are pursuing MDG-plus frameworks where they better integrate human rights concerns into MDG targets. For example, Thailand has begun to include targets for disadvantaged regions of the country in its MDG reporting. In Kenya, each region must now improve access to water and sanitation by 10% each year. However, countries like this reporting around human rights through MDG monitoring are isolated cases.71 Improved data collection and reporting around MDGs is a necessary step, including disaggregation by income and gender to more effectively detect discrimination, and issues of affordability and water quality. The poorest and most marginalized people, including indigenous and minority groups, are often not captured in official statistics that emphasize “households” as opposed to individual access.72

Returning to our image of the world's waterscape as uneven and diverse, we suggest, based on these findings on the MDGs and the human right to water, that creating more equitable global water access will require equally diverse and context-specific solutions. While water planners and development agencies may yearn for universal solutions, most experts focus on the need to develop context-specific and appropriately targeted water management solutions that recognize specificity of place and culture and meaningfully engage local communities in resolving these issues.73 We need a more flexible and responsive set of strategies and institutions overall, and a willingness to refine technologies and apply them only where they can be effective. Water policy scholar Helen Ingram argues, “The problem with all of the reforms … is not so much what they propose … but what they leave out.”74

The range of solutions may involve hard infrastructure in some cases, but we need to develop more capacity and options based on soft-path strategies. While some private-sector participation is likely, it will need to be implemented under effective regulation and equitable principles, to avoid the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, many developing countries lack strong institutional and regulatory capacity. Demand management—water conservation, reuse, and harvesting—will become increasingly important, especially in water-scarce areas. Soft-path solutions require the participation of local communities and water users to figure out strategies that work within their culture and society. Given the choppy nature of the global waterscape, we will need a range of flexible and targeted solutions to realize water as a human right in the 21st century.

1. Austria P. Martinez and P. van Hofwegen, eds., Synthesis of the 4th World Water Forum (Mexico City: Comisión Nacional de Agua, 2006), 24.

2. UNICEF, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (NY: UNICEF, 2010).

3. For example, some First Nations reserves have been on water advisories for nearly a decade, and with recent statistics reporting that more than one hundred reserves are on water advisories. Health Canada, First Nations, Inuit, and Aboriginal Health, Drinking Water and Waste Water (2011), at (accessed 13 November 2011).

4. IPCC, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, eds. M. L. Parry, O. F. Canziani, J. P. Palutikof, P. J. van der Linden, and C .E. Hanson (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

5. UNDP, Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis (NY: UNDP, 2006).

6. Sultana argues that water collection plays an important social role in women's lives in many cultures, affording them an acceptable role within the public sphere outside of the household or family compound. Farhana Sultana, “Fluid Lives: Subjectivities, Gender and Water in Rural Bangladesh,” Gender, Place & Culture 16(4) (2009): 427–444. Many studies have also found, however, that water collection disrupts girls' education and unsafe sanitation exposes girls to the threat of violence. See UN Water, Gender, Water and Sanitation: A Policy Brief (NY: UN, 2008).

7. UN, Millennium Development Goals (Geneva: UN, 2000).

8. Mechanisms for monitoring progress on the MDGs include annual UN global reports, five-year comprehensive reviews, and country-level MDG reporting. The UN General Assembly reviews progress annually. At regional and national levels country monitoring reports are prepared and reviewed. See UNDP, The Path to Achieving the Millennium Development Goals: A Synthesis of MDG evidence from around the world (New York, NY: UNDP, 2010).

9. See, for example, Patrick Bond, “Global Governance Campaigning and the MDGs: From Top-Down to Bottom-Up Anti-Poverty Work,” Third World Quarterly 27(2) (2006): 339–354.

10. Julie Aubriot, The Right to Water: Emergence, Definition, Current Situation and Stakeholders' Positions (Paris, France: ACF International Network, 2008), 6; Karen Bakker, “The “Commons” Versus the “Commodity”: Alter-Globalization, Anti-Privatization and the Human Right to Water in the Global South,” Antipode (2007): 430–455; and Karen Bakker, Privatizing Water: Governance Failure and the World's Urban Water Crisis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010). Protests at the World Water Forums in recent years, especially in 2006 and 2009, illustrate this growing dissatisfaction and call for a human right to water. See Environment News Service, World Water Forum Opens to Scarcity Fears and Protests, March 16, 2009, at (accessed 1 November 2011).

11. Water expert Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute argues there has long been a basis in international law, covenants, and declarations for recognizing a human right to water, including in treaties protecting women and children. Peter Gleick, “The Human Right to Water,” Water Policy 1(5) (1999): 487–503. See also Malgosia Fitzmaurice, “The Human Right to Water,” Fordham Environmental Law Review 18 (2006–2007): 537.

12. Luis Veiga da Cunha, “Water: A Human Right or an Economic Resource?,” in M. Ramin Llamos et al., eds., Water Ethics (London: Taylor and Francis Group, 2009), 97–113, 100. The quantity of water is not necessarily easy to determine because it can vary according to cultural practices and behaviors and geographical location. Generally, it is assumed that a person needs a minimum of 20 liters per day—and qualitatively, it should be clean and safe with no human health risk from consuming it. See Note 5. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 50 liters for drinking, hygiene, and food preparation.

13. Comment 15 (2002) states: “The right to water clearly falls within the category of guarantees essential for securing an adequate standard of living, particularly since it is one of the most fundamental conditions for survival. The right should also be seen in conjunction with other rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights, foremost amongst them the right to life and human dignity.” General Comment No. 15, United Nations Document E/C.12/2002/11 (NY: UN, 2002).

14. Bolivia played a critical role leadership role at the UNGA. One Bolivian dignitary explained that their frustration with a lack of progress at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change negotiations helped spur action by a group of countries especially vulnerable to climate change impacts to propose this resolution. See Joyeeta Gupta, Rhodante Ahlers, and Lawal Ahmed, “The Human Right to Water: Moving Towards Consensus in a Fragmented World,” Review of European Community and International Environmental Law 19 (3) (2010): 294–305.

15. ODI, Millennium Development Goals Report Card: Measuring Progress across Countries (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2010).

16. UNICEF and WHO, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: Special Focus on Sanitation (NY: UNICEF and WHO, 2008), 28.

17. Ibid, 8.

18. UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Promotion and Protection of all Human Rights, Civil, Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, including the Right to Development. Catarina de Albuquerque, Report of the independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, 25 February 2009, 9.

19. P. H. Gleick, H. Cooley, M. J. Cohen, M. Morikawa, J. Morrison, and M. Palaniappan, eds., The World's Water 2008–2009, The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2009).

20. UNDP, The Path to Achieving the Millennium Development Goals: A Synthesis of MDG Evidence From Around the World (NY: UNDP, 2010).

21. Helen Ingram, “Beyond Universal Remedies for Good Water Governance: A Political and Contextual Approach,” in A. Garrido and H. Ingram, eds., Water for Food in a Changing World (NY: Routledge, 2011), 241–261.

22. Ibid.

23. Margaret Wilder, “Water Governance in Mexico: Political and Economic Apertures and a Shifting State–Citizen Relationship,” Ecology and Society 15(2) (2010): 22.

24. Karen Bakker, Privatizing Water: Governance Failure and the World's Urban Water Crisis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010).

25. Community water systems in the southern zone actually began before the privatization scheme was tried and failed. Thousands of migrants poured into Cochabamba from rural mining areas in the 1980s after the mines they worked in were closed or privatized. The Americas program reports that the southern part of the city had been declared a “red zone”—meaning the municipal water utility, SEMAPA, did not provide any water to the area. The early water committees—in accordance with the usos y costumbres (customs and uses) used in Andean villages to manage common-pool resources—dug their own wells and dug trenches from neighborhood homes to the well site, then laid pipe to carry the water.

26. Susan Spronk and Jeffrey R. Webber, “Struggles against Accumulation by Dispossession in Bolivia: The Political Economy of Natural Resource Contention,” Latin American Perspectives 34(2) (2007): 31–47; Raúl Zibechi, “Cochabamba: From Water War to Water Management,” Americas Program, 27 May, 2009. Available at (accessed 18 October 2011); and Rocio Bustamante, “The Water War: resistance against privatisation of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia,” Revista de Gestión del Agua en América Latina 1(1): 37–46 (Jan.-June 2004).

27. Ibid.

28. The co-management project is funded by a $USD 4 million grant from the government of Bolivia and the European Union, and retains primary control for design and execution of the water system within ASICA-Sur and the water committees, in cooperation with SEMAPA. ASICA-Sur and the water committees, represented by a three-person consulting committee selected by the water committees, will be the “main agents” for management and project execution in the 22 water systems included in this project.

29. Maria Carmen Lemos and Arun Agrawal, “Environmental Governance,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 31 (2006): 297–325.

30. UNICEF, An Evaluation of the PlayPump® Water System as an Appropriate Technology for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Programmes (NY: UNICEF, 2007).

31. Andrew Chambers, “Africa 's Not-So-Magic Roundabout,” 24 November, 2009. Available at (accessed 1 November 2011); Frontline/World South Africa, “Troubled Water,” 29 June 2010. Available at (accessed 1 November 2011); and Jean Case, The Painful Acknowledgement of Coming up Short, Case Foundation (2010). Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

32. See Frontline's discussion of the rise and decline of PlayPumps® and related links to organizations that have refocused their use of the technology only for schools. Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

33. Gary Wolff and Peter H. Gleick, “The Soft Path for Water,” in The World's Water 2002–2003 (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002), 1–32. See also B. van Koppen, S. Smits, P. Moriarty, F. Penning de Vries, M. Mikhail, and E. Boele, Climbing the Water Ladder: Multiple-Use Water Services for Poverty Reduction (Sri Lanka: IWMI, 2009).

34. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 15, (2002) E/C.12/2002/11, para. 2. Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

35. Amy Hardberger, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Water: Evaluating Water as a Human Right and the Duties and Obligations it Creates,” Northwestern University Journal of International Human Rights 4 (2005–2006): 331, 355.

36. According to Blue Planet, at least 165 states have signed declarations recognizing the right to water and at least 106 States have signed up to declarations recognizing the right to sanitation and water. See Blue Planet Project, “International Declarations and Recommendations on Water and Sanitation” (ND). Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

37. In the historic 2004 vote, more than 60% of the Uruguayan people voted to amend their constitution to make water a human right. The grassroots movement, led by a network called the National Commission for the Defence of Water and Life, composed of the trade unions, human rights groups, and environmental organizations, was a direct response to the privatization of water services in Uruguay, which began around 2000 and was criticized for resulting in poorer quality, exclusion of access, and environmental damage. Carlos Santos and Alberto Villarreal, “Uruguay: Victorious Social Struggle for Water,” in Brid Brennan, Ilivier Hoedeman, Philipp Terhost, and Satoko Kishimoto, eds., Reclaiming Public Water: Achievements, Struggles and Visions from Around the World (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute, 2007): 173–179. But then, less than a year after the constitutional amendment was approved, the Tabaré Vázquez government produced an executive resolution stating that the private companies that signed concession contracts before the referendum would be allowed to continue their contracts. As Santos and Valdomir argue, the Uruguayan government refused to follow through on the popular demand for fear that the companies would retaliate by bringing lawsuits against the government in international court. The companies' investments are protected by bilateral investment treaties that are backed by powerful means of enforcement through investor-state arbitration. See (accessed 13 November 2011).

38. Recognizing the urgency of climate change and building from the larger international perspective developing around the human right to water, Mexico's legislature advanced an amendment to Article 4 of the Mexican Constitution in September 2011, which recognizes a “right of all to water that is sufficient, healthy, accessible, … for domestic and personal use.” The action is the result of several years of work by the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water, a network of organizations dedicated to pursuing a human right to water in Mexico.

39. See Farhana Sultana and Alex Loftus, eds., The Right to Water: Politics, governance and social struggles (NY: Earthscan, 2012), which includes case studies from several regions and countries of the world including Europe, the Middle East, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and south and central America.

40. See Republic of South Africa (RSA), “The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act,” 108, of 1996, Chapter 2, Section 27; RSA Water Services Act, 108, of 1997; and RSA, National Water Act, 36, of 1998.

41. Marcelle Dawson, “The Cost of Belonging: Exploring Class and Citizenship in Soweto 's Water War,” Citizenship Studies 14(4) (2010): 381–394. Gcin'amanzi means “conserve water.”

42. The case was in part a reaction to the deaths of two children in a fire in 2002 when their shack burned and the prepayment meter system failed to provide water to extinguish the fire. More broadly, the turn to the legal strategy was a reaction to “state coercive force characterized by countless arrests, injuries, high bail amounts, and harsh sentences” to crush community resistance to the prepaid meter. Communication with Dale T. McKinley, Johannesburg, South Africa, November 11, 2011.

43. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa guarantees the right of citizen access to sufficient water (Act 108 of 1996, section 7(2)): “everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being … everyone has the right to have access to … sufficient water.

44. Rebecca Bates, “The Road to the Well: An Evaluation of the Customary Right to Water,” Review of European Community and International Environmental Law 19(3) (2010): 282–293, 290.

45. The meters allow households a free basic monthly allowance of 6,000 litres of water before shutting off automatically, requiring residents to pay for additional water. Raffaella Delle Donne, Water Meters for the Poor: New Name, Old Problems.InterPress Service News Agency, 22 March 2009). Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

46. Twani Mabhelandle, Western Cape Water Caucus, presentation at Cape Town Hearings on Climate Change, Food and Water, hosted by Oxfam International and Environmental Monitoring Group, Rondebosch, 6 October 2009. Available at (accessed 1 November 2011). According to some reports, there are frequent malfunctions with the meters that disturb the flow of water for days, having detrimental effects on households and small businesses. WASH News Africa, South Africa: Cape Town Water Meters Leave Poor High and Dry, 15 July 2010. Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

47. J. Dugard and M. Langford, “Art or Science: Synthesising Lessons from Public Interest Litigation and the Dangers of Legal Determinism,” South African Journal on Human Rights on Public Interest Litigation 27 (2011): 39–64; and J. Dugard, “Civic action and the legal mobilisation: The Phiri water meters case” in J. Handmaker and R. Berkhout, eds. Mobilising Social Justice in South Africa: Perspectives from Researchers and Practitioners(The Hague: ISS and Hivos, 2010): 71–99. Communication with Jackie Dugard, Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 November 2011.

48. See, for example, the Mvula Trust, established in 1993, initially as a three-year project to help alleviate the critical situation in the early 1990s by establishing a quick mechanism for funding community-driven water and sanitation projects. See Mvula Trust at (accessed 15 September 2011).

49. D. McDonald and G. Ruiters, The Age of Commodity: Water Privatization in Southern Africa (London: Earthscan, 2005).

50. See J Karamoko, “Service Delivery Protests: Less Frequent, More Violent,” Local Government Bulletin, 13(3) (2011): 10–13; and research around North West Province village of Sannieshof where local residents took over the responsibilities of the municipality as a result of bad service delivery. See C. Gouws, I. M. Moeketsi, S. Motloung, J. W. N. Tempelhoff, G. van Greuning, and L. van Zyl, “SIBU and the Crisis of Water Service Delivery in Sannieshof, North West Province,” TD: The Journal for Research in Southern Africa 6(1) (2010): 25–56.

51. According to South Africa 's 2010 Millennium Development country report, “There was a progressive increase (4%) in the percentage of households with access to water supply from a safe source between 2002 (88.7%) and 2007 (92.7%), with slight dip in 2008 (92.0%), and then a rise in 2009 (92.4%). UNDP, Millennium Development Goals, Country Report 2010 (NY: UNDP, 2010), 93.

52. UN OHCHR, Human Rights and the Millennium Development Goals in Practice: A Review of Country Strategies and Reporting (NY: UN, 2010), 13.

53. Larry A. Swatuk, “The State and Water Resources Development through the Lens of History: A South African Case Study,” Water Alternatives 3(3) (2010): 521–536. A key limitation to extending access in Johannesburg's inner city is the requirement that only property owners are eligible for the minimum 6 kls of water and free sanitation thereby, excluding the poorest of the poor. See A. Wafer, J. Dugard, M. Ngwenya, and S. Sibanda, A Tale of Six Buildings: The Lived-Reality of Poor People's Access to Basic Services in Johannesburg's Inner City (Johannesburg: Centre for Applied Legal Studies, University of Witwatersrand, 2008).

54. Argentina has an extensive body of case law on the right to water, reflecting a broad range of issues, such as disconnection of water services by private companies, water pollution, and the lack of access, and also reveals the role of NGOs in supporting litigation and raising awareness in communities. I. Winkler, “Judicial Enforcement of the Human Right to Water—Case Law from South Africa, Argentina and India,” Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (2008): 1–19.

55. See Philippe Cullet, “Water Sector Reforms and Courts in India: Lessons from the Evolving Case Law,” Review of European Community and International Environmental Law 19(3) (2010): 328–338.

56. The Rights to Water and Sanitation, The Right to Water under the Right to Life: India (ND). Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

57. For a discussion of the cases, see Saby Ghoshray, Searching for Human Rights to Water Amidst Corporate Privatization in India: Hindustan Coca-Cola Pvt. Ltd. v. Perumatty Grama Panchay, Georgetown International Environmental Law Review 19 (2007): 643; and K. Ravi Raman, “Transverse Solidarity: Water, Power, and Resistance,” Review of Radical Political Economics 42(2010): 251–268.

58. Jeremiah McWilliams, “India State to Hear Claims Against Coke,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 25 February 2011. Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

59. “Kerala Okays a Bill to Penalise Coca Cola,” The India Daily, 25 February 2011. Available at (accessed 1 November 2011). The legislation is in part based on the 2010 report and recommendations of a High Power Committee, which found Coca-Cola responsible for causing pollution and water depletion in Plachimada and recommended Coca-Cola be held liable for some US$48 million in damages. See India Resource Center, Recommendations of High Power Committee (ND). Available at (accessed 1 November 2011). A similar report submitted at the same time instructed PepsiCo to cut groundwater use by two-thirds at its plant also in Kerala's Palakkad district. See “Cola Giants Criticized Amid India Water Crisis,” Bangkok Post (21 April 2010). Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

60. Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee, “A Call To Struggle … for Water … for Life,” 5 January 2010. Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

61. K. Ravi Raman, “Transverse Solidarity: Water, Power, and Resistance,” Review of Radical Political Economics 42 (2010): 251–268.

62. Tom Levitt, “Coca-Cola Just Part of India's Water ‘Free-for-All,'” Ecologist (4 December 2009). Available at (accessed 1 November 2011).

63. The progress toward the MDGs has been halted because of recent food, fuel, and financial crises. S. Jahan, “The MDGs Beyond 2015,” IDS Bulletin 41 (2010): 51–59.

64. Kate Tissington, Marc Dettmann, Malcolm Langford, Jackie Dugard, and Sonkita Conteh, Water Services Fault Lines: An Assessment of South Africa's Water and Sanitation Provision across 15 Municipalities (Johannesburg, Geneva, and Oslo: Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, and Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, 2008), 2.

65. Pedro Arrojo, El reto ético da la nueva cultura del água: Funciones, valores y derechos en juego (Barcelona: Ediciones Paidós, 2006). According to UNDP, estimating conservatively, the direct and indirect costs associated with the deficit of water access in developing countries, like health costs, represents nine times the costs of simply providing universal access. UNDP, Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis (New York, NY: UNDP, 2006), 42.

66. J. Whiteley, H. Ingram, and R. Perry, eds., Water, Place, and Equity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008); and Erik Swyngedouw, Social Power and the Urbanization of Water—Flows of Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

67. Philip Alston, “Ships Passing in the Night: The Current State of the Human Rights and Development Debate Seen Through the Lens of the Millennium Development Goals,” Human Rights Quarterly 27(3) (2005): 755–829.

68. Communication with Carlos Santos, Uruguay, authors' translation from Spanish, 6 January 2012.

69. Francis Rose, “Water Justice in South Africa: Natural Resources Policy at the Intersection of Human Rights, Economics, and Power,” Georgetown International Environmental Law Review 18 (2005): 149; and J. Gupta, “The current status of the human right to water” in The Right to Water and Water Rights in a Changing World (Paris: UNESCO, 2011): 47–53, 48.

70. Randy Showstack, “Meeting Basic Human Needs for Water Remains Huge Challenge, Expert Says,” Eos 92(44) (November 2011): 387.

71. UN COHRE, The Significance of Human Rights in MDG-Based Policy Making on Water and Sanitation: An Application to Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Laos (Geneva: COHRE, 2009). There has been relatively limited success in some cases due to larger capacity and financial concerns and situations where economic imperatives over- ride entitlements to water and sanitation. See also endnote 52.

72. UN OHCHR, Human Rights and the Millennium Development Goals in Practice: A Review of Country Strategies and Reporting (New York, NY: UN, 2010), 28.

73. See, for example, endnote 66; and P. H. Gleick, G. Wolff, E. L. Chalecki, and R. Reyes, The New Economy of Water: The Risks and Benefits of Globalization and Privatization of Fresh Water (Oakland, CA: Pacific Institute, 2002).

74. Helen Ingram, “Beyond Universal Remedies for Good Water Governance: A Political and Contextual Approach,” in Water for Food in a Changing World, eds. A. Garrido and H. Ingram (New York: Routledge, 2011): 248.

Andrea K. Gerlak is the Director of Academic Development for the International Studies Association, and Environmental Policy Faculty Associate with the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on issues related to institutions, development, and science around the management and governance of water.

Margaret Wilder is an associate professor in the School of Geography and Development and the Center for Latin American Studies, and is an associate research professor in the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on water governance, climate change, equity and development in Mexico and the Latin American region.

The authors thank Helen M. Ingram, Robert G. Varady, Johann WN Tempelhoff, Marcelle Dawson, Victor Munnik, Larry Swatuk, Jackie Dugard, and Dale T. McKinley for their insightful comments on an earlier version of this article. All errors and omissions remain the responsibility of the authors.

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