Water — a gift of God, an economic good or a human right?

Water is a natural resource-like wood, coal, oil or gold. However, water is different from other natural resources. It is not only used for numerous economic and technical purposes, but has cultural, social and symbolic dimensions. We could survive without coal or wood or oil, but water is a basis for life. This is why in many religions, water has a special meaning and is often at the beginning of creation accounts.

Especially in those religions that emerged in water-scarce areas like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, water has a special significance. Stories in the Old Testament reflect the water scarcity experienced by the people of the Middle East and show respect for the life-giving as well as destructive power of water. God is praised as the one who provides water and thus life. Islamic mystics compare Allah to an endless ocean. Paradise is envisaged as a garden fed by clean, cool water. Also the purifying role of water in the form of ritual washing before prayer or during pilgrimages is a common element in many religions. In Christianity, the ritual of baptism purifies the believer and makes him a part of the Christian community. Millions of Hindu believers take ritual baths in the Ganges-the most important of the seven sacred rivers in Hinduism.[Kürschner-Pelkmann 2003.]

This meaning of water has practical implications. In Islam, water is considered a gift of Allah and therefore has the status of a community resource to which everybody should have access. Consequently, many interpretations of the Holy Quran argue that it is forbidden to buy or sell water. However, if infrastructure, knowledge or other investments have been made for its withdrawal, fees may be levied. Considering water as a gift of God has an impact on how people handle water: I should esteem it and not waste it; if it is a gift to me, then it is also a gift to my neighbour, and I should not deprive him of access. The Quran as well as the hadith (written collections of the words and deeds of Prophet Mohammed) make explicit statements on the duty to use water economically, equitably, with consultation of all stakeholders, and with respect for the environment.[Faruqui 2001.] A survey on reasons for water conservation in the Syr Darya Basin, for example, found that financial incentives only matter for 20% of the respondents, while 30% mentioned moral and religious motives.[Abdullaev, Kazbekov and Molden 2007.] Thus, the «symbolic» value of water in religion and culture can serve as a very concrete motivation for saving water and raising awareness for rational water use.

However, in the 20th century, water management approaches around the world focused on the technical questions of sufficient supply. Water demand was expected to increase due to population growth and economic development. Solutions to meet future water demand were seen solely in technical terms and on the supply side. Huge infrastructure projects like dams, reservoirs and irrigation systems are hallmarks of this approach.

With rising environmental awareness in the 1960s, environmental consequences of these projects were criticized and demands to include ecological needs in water management policies strengthened. At the same time, technical progress in industrialized countries led to new water-saving technologies and showed that economic progress and demographic growth do not necessarily lead to more water consumption (as was the previous assumption). Later on, this criticism was complemented by the concept of water as an economic good, a position especially promoted by international financial and donor organizations.

It is based on the assumption that water has an economic value and therefore should have a price. This economic value comes from the costs arising from its provision and the value gained from its usage. Inadequate pricing mechanisms are perceived as the main causes of inefficient and wasteful water use. In contrast, adequate and cost-recovering pricing provide the financial means for the maintenance of infrastructure, which is essential to a reliable water supply. They also offer an incentive to save water. At the political level, this concept can help decision-making on distribution of water among different sectors of the economy.

On an international level, this approach was recognized by the Dublin Principles of 1992. They state that:

  • Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment;
  • Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policymakers at all levels;
  • Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water;
  • Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good.[http://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/hwrp/documents/english/icwedece.html]

These principles evolved as one of the major reference points in the international discourse on water management. Nevertheless, it is still contested by many and is the subject of a continuing debate among officials, academics, practitioners, civil society activists and private businesses.

During the last decades, various UN bodies and conferences have started to address water and sanitation issues in a human rights context. This is driven by the fact that still today, an estimated 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. This is not only a serious social and health issue. Access to water is a fundamental precondition for the enjoyment of human rights like the rights to life, adequate housing, education, food, health, work and cultural life. Therefore, activists have started to argue that water is more than just a human need, that it is a human right. In such a reading, the access to safe drinking water should not depend on affordability; its provision to the poor is no longer perceived as charity, but as a legal entitlement.

In 2008, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted on the initiative of Germany and Spain a resolution on human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation and appointed an independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque (renamed the special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation in March 2011). Another breakthrough was achieved on July 28, 2010, when the UN General Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution on the human right to access to clean water and sanitation. The resolution calls on states and international organizations to provide financial resources, build capacity and transfer technology to developing countries to help them provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation to all. However, the states were unable to achieve a consensus on the text, and 41 countries abstained from the vote. In March 2011, the UN Human Rights Council also adopted a resolution on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The notion that there is a human right to water does not imply that water in any amount has to be free and that no cost-recovery considerations apply. Rather, it means that governments are responsible for ensuring sufficient water for basic health and safety needs (i.e. for drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation and personal and household hygiene) in a way that is affordable and available to all. But it does not prescribe whether water services should be delivered by public or private providers and how access is guaranteed.[OHCHR 2011.]