All news

Read all about ethics and our resources, events and projects worldwide

null 12th Anniversary of the Human Right to Water: What has been achieved?


This Tuesday 29 March 2022, the Workshop for Water Ethics (W4W) held their 7th interdisciplinary colloquium, entitled "12ème anniversaire pour le droit humain à l’eau : quel bilan?", or "12th Anniversary of the Human Right to Water: What has been achieved?".

Since 2011, a series of interdisciplinary colloquia on water has been organized at Geneva's Museum of the History of Science by W4W. With insight from specialists from diverse backgrounds, these meetings have addressed issues such as water supply and management, the right to water, and plastic pollution of the oceans in theory and in practice, and always with a focus on ethics. The colloquia have also led to the publication of two books by Water Ethics: Principles and Guidelines and Blue Ethics: Ethical Perspectives on Sustainable, Fair Water Resources Use and Management. Publications Assistant Jakob Bühlmann Quero attended this week's event alongside Ignace Haaz, Programme Executive Online Ethics Library and Publications Manager, and shared his learnings from the colloquium.

Water scarcity and distribution is a central issue of debate in our day and age: the UN calculates that around 2 billion people suffer from a lack of water, and the situation is only worsening with the forecasted consequences of climate change. To mitigate the noxious effects of this tendency, in 2010 the UN declared, for the first time, water to be a “human right”.

This giant step followed some significant predecessors. In 1967, an international agreement on economic and cultural rights was established, marking a milestone for the 1987 international act that would establish the need to preserve natural resources and accessibility to water. The following years saw the UN conduct a long process of reflection and study before first establishing the right to water in 2010 and, later, proposing the 2030 Agenda. The diplomatic miracle that is the Sustainable Development Goals engages worldwide actors across a plethora of common objectives. Of the 17 goals, with a total of 169 objectives, ensuring access to water and sanitation for all is number 6.

As was expected, the step made by the UN has not been innocuous. The most recent examples of a change in the global mindset was the decision of the International Court of Justice forcing Nicaragua to pay Costa Rica for the violation of the environmental law of waters; the establishment of a “Legal Personality” for the Ganges River by the Indian government, and the protection enforced by the New Zealand government to conserve its aquatic heritage.

This process has also struck the way we generally think about water and its distribution and usage. Water is no longer considered an economic, legal or political issue, but rather as an ethical one. If every individual has the right to access to safe, sanitized water, there is no debate (or rather, the answer to any question is clear) around what to do with water.

What that said, and as functional and interesting as it may be, this “human rights”-based approach does open the door to a discussion on the right to use water and on water scarcity. How can we have an eco-centric and a person-centric point of view at the same time?

As always, ethical debates end in the proposal of new and perhaps clearer dilemmas. In this case, we end by formulating the question, in a simple way: how do we meet both human needs and environmental needs if our focus is on human rights?