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Opinion

With climate change impacts accelerating, we need to re-think the human right to water

Published on 21 March 2020

Image of Lyla Mehta
Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

Image of Shiney Varghese
Shiney Varghese

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

This year’s theme for World Water Day is Water and Climate Change. The recent Australian drought and flooding in the UK and East Africa show how climate change is leading to extreme events that create both uncertainties and irregularities in water availability, with far-reaching impacts on human wellbeing and ecosystem health. In all cases, the poor and marginalised people are most at risk. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy will further heighten the existing vulnerabilities of the poor.

This year also marks ten years since the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council recognised access to safe drinking-water and sanitation as a human right.  This right has now been incorporated into several national constitutions and has enabled many poor and marginalised people to demand access to water and sanitation. However, 2.5 billion people around the world still lack access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation facilities, affecting their nutritional and health status.  And, due to the narrow focus of the right to water on domestic provision, the wider challenges around accessing water for survival and livelihoods in the context of climate change are not being considered.

The current human right to water reflects a conventional sectoral division between water for drinking and domestic purposes, on the one hand, and water for productive uses and resource management, such as agriculture, industry, and subsistence or livelihoods purposes, on the other. This distinction is highly problematic from the perspective of local users for whom there is little sense in separating water for daily drinking and washing and water for small-scale productive activities that are crucial for everyday life.

Breaking down the siloes across these divisions is even more urgent under the COVID-19 pandemic as access to handwashing facilities remains a challenge in many parts of the rural Global South. Considering available agricultural water sources for handwashing (combined with educational materials on the benefits of handwashing and on keeping water sources free from faecal matters) and an overall more integrated assessment of water resources that can be repurposed for handwashing could make a difference for public health outcomes in these countries.

Water, food security, nutrition and social justice

Our book ‘Water, Food Security, Nutrition and Social Justice’ focuses on bringing this artificial dichotomy to light.  Water is what brings life to ecosystems, such as forests, lakes and wetlands that provide poor people with nutrition, and is fundamental for all other productive sectors, including energy, and manufacturing.  Without access to safe water there can be no food security and nutrition. Water of sufficient quantity and quality is an essential input to agricultural production as well as to the preparation, processing and consumption of food. Safe water and sanitation are fundamental to the nutrition, health and dignity of all.

Even though accessible fresh water resources are adequate at global levels to meet the water needs of the world, from local to global, there is vast inequality in access to water, determined by socio-economic, political, gender and power relations that also affect food security and nutrition and increasingly exacerbated by climate variability and change.

Land, water and food tightly linked

At the local level, water, land and food are tightly linked and are essential to local people’s livelihoods and survival strategies, yet remain disconnected in national policies and programmes.  This makes little sense for local users who experience these issues as deeply connected.

The narrow framing has also led to the Special Rapporteurs of the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation not addressing critical issues of land and water grabs that have undermined poor people’s rights to water and food. Therefore, it’s important to improve coherence between water and food security and nutrition related policies, strategies and rights frameworks as well as enable pro-poor water management and water governance around food security and nutrition.  To enable the poorest and marginalised people to access water for both survival and productive uses requires pro-poor investments that should be linked to conducive, enabling conditions, such as strong water rights systems that provide smallholder farmers and other marginal water users access to increasingly contested water resources.

A broader view of the right to water

A broader conceptualisation of the right to water, incorporating water for meeting individual and household food and nutrition requirements, would increase the obligations of States to meet the rights of the poor and marginalised as a priority.  This joint priority for both water and food is particularly true for rural areas where still most of the world’s poor live, nearly three-quarters of whom are also “water poor.”  It is time that international deliberations around the right to water focus on rural communities’ access to safe water and consider the fact that for rural communities, realization of their rights to life and to food is dependent on their ability to access water in their immediate environment.

This broader framing would also help the rural poor and marginalised to better address climate extremes and variability as States would need to focus on protecting and improving access for the rural poor that lack access to sanitation and water for both domestic and livelihoods needs. These groups are not only the most exposed to adverse climate change impacts, but are increasingly also vulnerable to dispossessions arising through land and water grabs.

A political choice

The main problem for the realisation of basic human rights is not financial but the lack of political will, accountability and the ability of powerful actors to violate vulnerable people’s basic rights with impunity.  The global recognition of water as a human right in 2010 –following a decade-long protracted struggle–shows that ideas often rejected as utopian and impractical are realized when the time is ripe.  Going forward, the Human Right to Water and Sanitation can either be expanded to include subsistence and productive uses while conserving ecosystem functions and thus support climate resilience or a separate human right for water for livelihood/ subsistence purposes can be considered.

World Water Day 2020 is an opportunity for governments, donors and key UN organisations such as the Committee on World Food Security to seriously strengthen the linkages and synergies between the rights to water and food, to ensure healthy and productive lives and a climate resilient future for all.

Lyla Mehta is Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and Visiting Professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
Claudia Ringler is Deputy Director of Environment and Production Technology Division at IFPRI
Shiney Varghese is Senior Policy Analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
All are co-authors of Water, Food Security, Nutrition and Social Justice

A shorter version of this article was first published by Thomson Reuters Foundation News: As climate change impacts accelerate, we need to re-think the human right to water

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