The objective of reducing the inequity that today excludes 2.1 billion people from access to this right will not be achieved only by building infrastructure, but primarily by reducing consumption and safeguarding sources
Water is indispensable for survival on this planet. And not just for keeping human beings alive, but also as the basis for countless organic and physical processes that shape our world.
From an anthropocentric viewpoint, water’s importance is grounded in the role it plays in processes that support human well-being. For example, the so-called “nexus” approach emphasizes that water is essential for energy security and food security.1 However, anthropocentric viewpoints tend to overlook the fact that anthropic activity has been the predominant driver of environmental degradation and the increased risks resulting from climate change, and that both of these situations are in turn intensifying water shortages.
We need to look at the bigger picture. If we understand that human well-being, without exception, depends on the health of planetary processes, it follows that one cannot exist without the other: the relations between the human species and nature cannot be conceived in terms of opposition, but of inseparable and potentially harmonious interconnection. It’s important to consider alternative approaches that help to generate relations based on a different logic: sustainability, environmental stewardship, respect for water and rivers as living beings.2
The human rights approach can be helpful in this regard. Since it was recognized in 2010 by the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, the human right to water and sanitation form part of the international standards that apply to water-related issues, including enforcement of criteria governing availability, quality, acceptability, affordability and accessibility. This recognition put an end to a long-standing debate and represented a key step toward the legitimation of the goal of ensuring universal access to drinking water and sanitation.
As with other social rights, the intention is not to open the door to the exploitation of common goods under the pretext of providing for humanity’s well-being. On the contrary, the aim is to offer a legal framework to protect water from a market-based logic and to promote the provision of services without discrimination, in favor of the poorest. This is an urgent and necessary demand given the scope of the inequalities and the inequity in the enjoyment of a decent life. Making water a human right in no way implies overlooking our responsibility to take care of the planet, nor does it give us preeminence over other species. In its report “Situation of Human Rights of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Pan-Amazon Region,” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in an attempt to appreciate the episteme of the peoples in question, recognizes the importance of the intergenerational horizon that is such an integral part of their worldview. They give high priority to ancestors and descendants, because social cohesion exists between generations, as expressed in the imperative to transmit the accumulated wisdom regarding care for the territory and nature. By this logic, those of us who live today and those who will live in the future can enjoy the common goods that were protected by our ancestors. This way of thinking could help us reinvent our practices when it comes to water and other shared resources.
We can no longer afford to put off assuming this paradigm with all its implications. In this regard, the figures published by the World Resources Institute related to the increase in water consumption over the past 50 years should ring alarm bells: demand has doubled since 1960, spurred by growth in the population and the economy.3 From 1960 to 2014, the use of this resource in the domestic sector rose by 600 percent, although the greatest amounts of water are extracted by the agricultural and livestock sector (70 percent) and industry (19 percent), where it is used to generate electricity and to produce fuels and other goods such as textiles and automobiles that require intensive water consumption.
The consequences are clear to see: 2.1 billion people in the world lack access to drinking water. It is not alarmist to draw the following conclusion: if water consumption continues to grow at this rate, driven by population growth, urban sprawl and economic expansion, at some point life on the planet will become inviable, and irreversibly so.
These developments, which are just around the corner, are not threats coming from some outside power; they are the logical consequences, intended or not, of our own actions. The flip side to this reality is that it’s not a fatal destiny that we’re facing; these are patterns that can be transformed by individual actions and, more importantly, by organized processes that require a strong component of social participation, along with institutional commitments.
With respect to water and sanitation, the objective of reducing the inequity that today excludes 2.1 billion people from access to this right will not be achieved only by building infrastructure, but primarily by reducing consumption and safeguarding sources. This calls for profound, urgent transformations of processes involving intensive water usage, such as current agricultural and livestock production models that feed into lifestyles based on induced needs that encourage the excessive consumption of energy and food.
On March 22, 2021, within the framework of World Water Day, Pope Francis spoke out on his social networks, calling attention to our special responsibility in the face of this challenge: “For us believers ‘sister’ water is not a commodity: it is a universal symbol and a source of life and health. So very many brothers and sisters have access to too little and perhaps polluted water! It is necessary to assure potable water and hygienic services to all.”
It is this perspective –one that acknowledges water’s peculiar subjectivity, not just its objective availability, and defends it from market forces, giving priority to the situation of the most marginalized people—that will help us move forward in the defense of the human right to water with the determination that this crucial moment demands. .
1. H. Bellfield, Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus in Latin America and the Caribbean. Trade-offs, Strategic Priorities and Entry Points, Global Canopy Programme, 2015.
2. L. Estupiñán, C. Storini, R. Martínez, F. de Carbalho, La naturaleza como sujeto de derechos en el constitucionalismo democrático, Universidad Libre, Bogotá, 2019.
3. B. Otto y L. Schleifer, “Domestic Water Use Grew 600% Over the Past 50 Years,” World Resources Institute, February 10, 2020: wri.org/blog/2020/02/growth-domestic-water-use