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Time to articulate the right to water?

Target ten of Millennium Development Goals (MDG) seeks to halve the proportion of people without sustainable and safe access to water. Although attempts have been made to link the MDGs and human rights, promoting a right to water achieves little if institutions, norms and values remain unchanged.

A paper from the University of Bradford in the UK analyses challenges
to putting the right to water into practice. A human right to water means giving priority to drinking water supply. It
highlights that providing water services is not charity. Governments should be
responsible for ensuring that the human right of those who do not have access
is not violated. It also emphasises that
discrimination and inequality cannot be tolerated, and that responsibility for
addressing violations is universal.

But do poor people benefit from a ‘right to water’ discourse?
Constitutional provisions for a formal right to water only exist in a few countries.
It is important to examine how effective these have been, but statistics are
not always accurate. The study shows:

  • In South Africa, the right to water has been promoted since 1997 but it has not had much
    impact on the proportion of people with access. It has, however, had some
    qualitative impact in terms of a diminishing sense of water insecurity.

  • In Ethiopia and the Gambia,
    a formal right to water has not made any impact on the proportion of population
    with access.

  • In Uganda, the
    right to water has coincided with a significant increase in people with access.

  • In Namibia, Eritrea and
    Tanzania, access has significantly increased, despite a lack of ‘right to water’

  • A right to water does not automatically
    provide people with water. Inequality in access to water persists and poor people
    mostly bear the consequences. The content and elements of such a right must be
    rooted in public debate and the creation of relevant institutions.

  • It is evident that:

  • High levels of voice, accountability,
    guarantees of participation and right to information matter in making water policies
    favour poor people.

  • To be meaningful, a right to
    water should provide scope for determining both fair access and fair allocation.

  • What is meant by a ‘human
    right to water’ needs to be clarified, and how this is different from a ‘property
    right to water’ made clear. ‘Right’ is not merely limited to ‘powers’ but
    includes issues related to immunity, privileges and responsibilities.

  • Rights are of limited use if
    people cannot take legal action to guarantee them: those who draft right-to-water
    legislation must identify what a right means in practice.