Life rests on water

Print edition : November 29, 2013

Residents of a locality in Delhi scramble for drinking water supplied by a New Delhi Metropolitan Corporation tanker. A file photograph. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

On the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right, essential for the full enjoyment of life.

A HUMAN’S right to water is not only an inescapable part of his right to food but is also an integral part of his right to life itself.

On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on the right to water and sanitation, its first resolution to deal specifically with the issue. It explicitly recognises the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.

The resolution was an initiative of Bolivia and was co-sponsored by 33 states, namely, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Georgia, Haiti, Madagascar, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Paraguay, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tuvalu, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Venezuela and Yemen. The United States called for a vote on the resolution. One hundred and twenty-two states voted in favour and none against; 41 states abstained from voting; and 29 states were absent. Not one big power or major state cared to join the sponsors, who were all small states, barring Saudi Arabia. That the U.S. called for a vote is significant.

That the resolution “recognises”, instead of “declares”, that water and sanitation is a human right demonstrates that the Assembly is of the view that the right to water and sanitation already exists. It did not create a new light but formally acknowledged its existence under international law.

India figures prominently in this book. Read this: “In the summer season in Delhi many neighbourhoods do not have water for days. Yet this affects only low-income neighbourhoods, while other more affluent areas are continuously supplied with water. Likewise, water is made available for the irrigation of the golf course at the Delhi Golf Club, an amount of 2 million litres per day. Maintaining golf courses, swimming pools and other luxuries thus often proves to be at the expense of people living in poverty and their access to water for basic human needs.” About half of Mumbai’s population lives in squatter areas. “Improvement of living conditions in these areas is often a low priority in urban policies” and in the reckoning of the calculations of municipal bodies.

The author notes that “consumption differs greatly between countries of the Global North and the Global South. Whereas a German citizen uses on average 129 litres per day and a U.S. citizen even up to 300 litres per day, many people in developing countries do not have access even to 20 litres per capita per day (l/c/d) to satisfy their most basic needs. But inequality in access also exists within countries, even within the same cities.

“Whereas well-off neighbourhoods in many cities of the Global South are often provided with unlimited amounts of water —at low prices—people living in informal settlements and other disadvantaged neighbourhoods often have access to less than 20 l/c/d. According to the Human Development Repor, 2006, on average 85 per cent of the wealthiest 20 per cent of the population have access to piped water in the household, whereas only 25 per cent of the poorest 20 per cent of the population enjoy such access.”

Inga T. Winkler is a legal adviser to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation based at the German Institute for Human Rights. She is also a lecturer at the University of Dusseldorf, Germany. As Gatarina de Albuquerque, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, points out in her foreword, recognition of the right is not enough. It must be “accompanied by strong legal scholarship that can elucidate on the meaning of these rights, extending our understanding of their contents, strengths but also their limits”.

This task has been performed most ably by Inga Winkler with remarkable learning and industry. As well as citations of cases decided by international bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights, she has cited cases decided by the Supreme Court of India, the High Court of Kerala, and the superior courts of South Africa, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. The work is indispensable for Indian lawyers and judges who have to grapple with the issues arising from the right to water. The state is under a legal obligation not only to provide safe drinking water to the citizen but also to protect water resources for generations to come. The author cites the Supreme Court’s ruling in Vellore Citizen’s Welfare Forum vs Union of India (1996) and the Kerala High Court’s ruling in Paumatty Grama Panchayat vs State of Kerala (2003).

Her learning is matched by her empathy for the underprivileged. “Access to water is characterised by great disparities. Globally, within countries and even within cities between different groups of population. Water consumption patterns and inequalities tend to reflect society in general: those stakeholders and groups that are marginalised in society at large also become marginalised in water management, and are particularly disadvantaged as far as access to water is concerned. People living in informal settlements and low-income areas, as well as in poor rural areas, are particularly aggrieved. In general, governments (national as well as local) attribute low priority to informal settlements in terms of development. Compared to rich and middle-class areas, they are often neglected as far as resource allocation is concerned. As a result, slum dwellers may only have 5 to 10 litres per day at their disposal. Other households in the same city, however, may enjoy Western supply standards and have a consumption of 50 to 150 l/c/d, if not more.”

Here is a field that cries aloud for social activism.

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