A Right to Water?

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution regarding "[t]he human right to water and sanitation." The resolution passed "[b]y a vote of 122 in favour to none against, with 41 abstentions." It is illustrative to note which countries voted for such a resolution, and which countries abstained. Only 9 full democracies (including Belgium, Germany, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland) voted for the resolution, whereas 16 full democracies (including Australia, Canada, Japan, Sweden, the UK, and the USA) abstained from the vote.

A comparison of the voting results based on the democracy index of those for the resolution and in abstention is enlightening:

• The average democracy index of those voting for the resolution was 5.04, or equivalent to a hybrid regime between that of an authoritarian state and a flawed democracy.

• In contrast, the average democracy index of those abstaining from the vote was 7.24, or equivalent to a flawed democracy, and reasonably close to the index criteria for a full democracy (8.00).

• Of the 103 countries that met the criteria of voting for the resolution and having available democracy index rankings, 9 (8.7%) were full democracies, 31 (30.1%) were flawed democracies, 23 (22.3%) were hybrid regimes, and 40 (38.8%) were authoritarian regimes.

• Of the 41 countries that abstained from the vote, 16 (39.0%) were full democracies, 17 (41.5%) were flawed democracies, 6 (14.6%) were hybrid regimes, and 2 (4.9%) were authoritarian regimes.

To summarize, the bloc of countries that abstained from the resolution contained a 4.5-fold higher percentage of full democracies than the block that voted for the resolution. Conversely, the bloc of countries that voted for the resolution had a 7.9-fold higher percentage of authoritarian regimes compared to the bloc that abstained from the vote.

As of 2010, the following 17 countries had "[c]onstitutional provisions explicitly requiring the protection and/or provision of clean water": Switzerland, Uruguay, South Africa, Panama, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Zambia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uganda, Venezuela, Kenya, Ethiopia, Gambia, Swaziland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Maldives. Only two full democracies (Switzerland and Uruguay) are on this list. Why is it that only 12.5% of such countries with constitutional provisions are full democracies, whereas the remaining 87.5% of the states do not even recognize and implement the most basic human right for a fully democratic government? The statistics are telling. Overall, of the 16 countries with available democracy indices (the Maldives were not ranked) on this list, 2 (12.5%) are full democracies, 5 (31.3%) are flawed democracies, 5 (31.3%) are hybrid regimes, and 4 (25.0%) are authoritarian regimes.

A larger group of nations (41 in total) "explicitly recognize the right to water in national legislation or policy." Of these 41 countries, only 8 (19.5%) are full democracies (including Belgium, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain), whereas 15 (36.6%) are flawed democracies, 10 (24.4%) are hybrid regimes, and 8 (19.5%) are authoritarian regimes (notable are Algeria, Angola, the Central African Republic, and Russia).

We need to ask why authoritarian regimes and other non-fully democratic states seem to like environmental rights based constitutions and legislation so much, while the same regimes ignore the most basic human rights, such as the rights to security of the person and property, freedom of speech, association, and the press, and the right to a democratically elected government? Isn't it suspicious that the countries most in favor of the human right to water are -- in general -- far less democratic than the countries that are portrayed as being opposed to such rights? Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of the constitutional and legislative wordings for such rights, and the negative implications that such efforts are having (where currently in place) and would have in truly democratic countries?

Scrolling down the list of countries that apparently favor the human right to water we see the following suspects: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Syria, and Somalia. Somalia, and the DRC are failed states, Syria is effectively a failed state in the middle of a brutal civil war between opposing authoritarian groups, Iran is an authoritarian theocracy, and yet their leadership collectively and wholeheartedly supports the human right to water? A ridiculous situation that is par for the course at the UN (where Iran chairs a UN disarmament conference, and where Angola, Burkina Faso, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates currently sit on the oxymoronically named UN Human Rights Council).

There is a reason why the large majority of fully-democratic states have not embraced such "rights." Is it because these full democracies are somehow inferior to authoritarian regimes, hybrid regimes, and flawed democracies in terms of a basic respect for human rights? By definition, no. What is more likely is that various legal experts in most of the full democracies recognize the democratic risks from such environmental rights efforts, and the authoritarian political motivations behind these promotions. In addition, claims that "[t]he right to water does not obligate nations to share their water resources with other nations, as state sovereignty is unimpaired by recognition of the right" are not likely correct. For many regions, if an upstream nation failed to share its water resources with a downstream nation, the right to water in the downstream nation would be rendered meaningless by the simple fact that insufficient water would exist in the downstream nation to meet the right to water for its citizens. Consequently, given the international nature of many local, regional, and national hydrologic systems (particularly if we include precipitation), any right to water necessarily requires the sharing of water resources (i.e., a threat to state sovereignty).

Access to "water and sanitation" is also not becoming more difficult for the human population. On the contrary, it is improving. One must note the positive trends in global access to an improved water source and improved sanitation facilities. While the rate of improvement appears to have slowed over the past several years for each indicator, if we extrapolate the 1990-2010 trend with linear regression, we obtain achievement of 100% global coverage for access to an improved water source sometime in the late 2020s. If we adopt a more conservative extrapolation using only the slower rate of expansion between 2007 and 2010, the extrapolation yields full coverage sometime in the mid- to late-2030s. The 1990-2010 trend for access to improved sanitation facilities gives us 100% global coverage sometime in the mid-2050s (with the more conservative 2007-2010 extrapolation, full coverage is projected to occur sometime in the late 21st century). Would we like to offer each citizen on the planet access to an improved water source immediately? Of course. Is this practical? Of course not. Within the context of human civilization existing across many millennia without any significant access to improved water sources, the fact we appear on course to achieve full coverage within the next couple decades is astonishing progress.

Most importantly, there is no advantage for western democracies to sign on to any declarations about the right to water. The OECD is already at effectively 100% coverage for access to improved water sources and sanitation facilities. Ergo, what is the point for the USA and other fully democratic nations -- who have already achieved essentially complete population coverage for improved water sources and sanitation facilities -- to constitutionalize a UN sponsored right to water and sanitation that could subsequently be used as a Trojan Horse for diminishing other human rights? All risk and no reward.