Last month I was lucky enough to attend the annual international affairs conference on Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire. I heard several very interesting speakers on the issue of water as a right and a resource (see the conference website for information on the full program). All life on earth depends on water, and humans use it directly, to drink and for washing, and indirectly, through its use in agriculture and industry. Among the many issues related to water we discussed was the question of whether there is an international human right to adequate, safe, affordable water to maintain the dignity of life.
While the United Nations General Assembly has recently adopted a resolution recognizing access to clean water and sanitation as a human right, that document is not a binding convention. One of the conference speakers, Dr. Christopher L. Kukk of Western Connecticut State University, stressed the difference between a resolution, expressing the view that water access is such a human right, and a treaty that would require states to take action to ensure that their citizens enjoy that right.
Dr. Kukk also pointed out that in international law there have been two approaches to water: some documents state that there is a human right to water, while others view water as a commodity, a resource with inherent monetary value. The first approach, taking the view that there is a human right to water, is expressed in several conventions, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990 and which states in article 24 that parties to the Convention must provide children with clean drinking water. The second point of view was expressed clearly in the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development, which was submitted to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. It states as principle 4 that water “has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good.”
Star Island itself has a unique water system, making it an interesting location for a conference on the subject. The conference center, which is the only establishment on the small island, uses salt water in its toilets, non-potable cistern water (collected from water that has fallen as rain and run off the building roofs) for laundry and showers, and fresh water produced on the island through a reverse osmosis project for drinking and cooking (see the Island website for information on its green initiatives). It was a perfect location to sit in a rocking chair on the porch and reflect on the experience.