Is there a human right to water? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 22, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 06:03 PM, October 26, 2019

Human Rights Advocacy

Is there a human right to water?

Although water is an essential element for human survival, access to water was not recognised as a human right when most fundamental rights were adopted under the International Bill of Human Rights. The reason behind this might be that none had predicted that a time would come when water would become insufficient for the masses.

Right to water may be defined as the right of every person, regardless of his economic situation, to be provided with a minimum quantity of quality water which is sufficient for life and health. At the international level, the United Nations Water Conference, which took place in 1977 in Mar Del Plata, Argentina, was the first to recognise the right to have access to drinking water in their Action Plan. Although it was argued that Article 11(1) of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has implicitly provided for right to water, the argument was weekend due to no mention of water. Later on, in 2002, UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in their General Comment No. 15 interpreted that right to adequate standard of living was not intended to be exhaustive and thus includes right to water as well. But the first formal recognition of right to water along with right to sanitation was acknowledged by United Nations General Assembly in their resolution A/RES/64/292. Following this, UN Human Rights Council affirmed the right to water as part of the existing international law and legally binding upon states in yet another resolution. Explicit mention of right to drinking water or water supply can be traced in Article 14(2) of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Article 24 of Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 28(2) of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Right to water is protected indirectly in the Constitutions of India and Bangladesh in the guise of right to life, right to basic necessities or food and the right to health. The strongest hint may come from the Indian case of Francis Coralie Mullin v The Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi (1981), where it was argued that “right to life includes right to live with human dignity along with the basic necessities of life.” Explicit mention of right to water can be found in the case of Subhash Kumar v State of Bihar (1991), where the court found that the right to life, as protected by Article 21 of the Constitution of India, included the right to enjoy pollution-free water. Even in Bangladesh, in the case of Rabia Bhuiyan v Ministry of LGRD and others (1999), the Appellate Division stated that it was the responsibility of the Government to ensure the supply of clean and safe water to communities under a number of laws, including the Environmental Conservation Act 1995 and the Environmental Conservation Rules 1997. The court furthermore added that the non-compliance with the statutory duties to ensure access to safe and drinkable water constitutes a violation of the right to life as guaranteed in Articles 31, 32, 15 and 18 of the Constitution. The Bangladesh Water Act 2013 which was enacted for management, protection and conservation of water resources, in Section 3, provides for right to drinkable water and water for hygiene and sanitation to be treated as the highest priority right.

Apart from the fact that without access to water, right to life is rendered non-existent, the need to have right to water established as a separate and distinct right arises due to the miserable situation regarding the current state of water in the world, which hints to the impending doom of the human race. World Economic Forum, this year listed scarcity of water as one of the largest global risks over the next decade. Globally, more than one out of six people lacks access to safe drinking water, with 4 billion people living under severe water scarcity at least 1 month of the year and another half billion facing such scarcity throughout the year. With the continuation of the current trend, the demand for water will encompass the supply by 40% in 2030.

The writer is student of Law, University of Chittagong.

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