Case studies

Water Solutions

Case 1: The Push for a UN Covenant on the Right to Water


large_case1.jpgHuman rights have been a powerful platform for advancing the agenda for social justice and ecological sustainability throughout the world. However, our best intentions and declarations are continually compromised by the lack of political will, grassroots power to force that will, and the underdeveloped capacity to enforce and realize the rights as described on paper. This is aggravated by the willingness of would-be water privatizers to co-opt the discourse of human rights for their own ends. Some have suggested that focusing on water as a human right is therefore in error, while others see it at least as a stepping stone to working toward access and sustainability for all. The Friends of the Right to Water has worked hard in past years to advance the idea of a binding, new covenant enshrining water as a fundamental human right. Despite its challenges – including the compromise with corporations over voluntary statements of social and environmental standards in the Global Compact and the lack of a consistent means of enforcing and realizing human rights – the UN remains the sole international political organization with the capability to bring a new force of customary international law (deriving from custom and practice rather than written treaty law) – into being. Such mechanisms can, and have been integrated into national legal frameworks, though not consistently. The Friends of the Right to Water outline some key principles that could inform the construction of a new global covenant.

Key Principles

  • Water is necessary for all life on earth.
  • Water is a fundamental human right and requires States to be willing and able to implement their respective obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the right to adequate water and sanitation.
  • As part of their obligations to fulfill the right to water, States have obligations to provide adequate, safe, accessible and affordable water and sanitation for all people within their jurisdiction who currently do not have such access, with preferential treatment and positive action for the poor and marginalised.
  • States must ensure that is water allocated in a manner that prioritises people’s basic needs and livelihoods.
  • Water is a public trust and not a commodity and belongs to all humanity and the earth. As such, water should remain in the public domain.
  • States have the responsibility to ensure the conservation of freshwater ecosystems, to prevent overconsumption of water, the degradation of water systems and to protect of watersheds.
  • Sufficient clean water is necessary to protect ecosystems and other species. Healthy ecosystems will ensure the human right to water for future generations.
  • States have obligations to guarantee the human rights principles of participation and transparency, including that water services must be under democratic public control, in which members of the public fully participate in decisions on water management and the allocation of water resources.
  • Water resources contained completely within a State’s boundaries are considered part of the national patrimony and should never be subject to foreign exploitation.


  • What are some weaknesses and strengths of going the “UN route” of declaring water a human right?
  • What is the synergy between fighting for the human right to water and gaining recognition of water as a part of the Commons?