The Global Water Trade Crisis: Human Right or Commodity?

This is an excerpt from a huge research project on the privatisation of water resources. It was written before I did my masters or law degrees – and if I recall, I might have done this under some considerable (self-imposed) time constraints. So needless to say, it’s not my best work! An interesting topic though, nevertheless…

As the scarcity of drinkable water becomes more apparent, the implications of privatizing this most essential human necessity have extended far beyond the economic realm. The control and distribution of water has raised serious concerns regarding the safety and preservation of individuals, communities, national security, and the environment (Arnold, 786). Proponents of water privatization claim that water should be seen as a valuable commodity, the distribution of which should be determined by the ability to pay.

By allocating water only to those capable of affording set market prices, competition within the water industry motivates efficacy. In opposition to corporate interests however are those who insist water is not a commodity to be purchased and sold for profit, but a fundamental human right. As the latter, governments and governing international bodies alike have an inherent responsibility to provide all with adequate access to water, regardless of socioeconomic class. Seemingly, there exists an inverse relationship between the corporate interests and the security of human rights.

As early as 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mandated that everyone be entitled to “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family” (Morsink, 198). It took nearly 50 years for the international community to recognize that the right to water could be derived from this declaration. Human rights, by definition, are those that “are protected by internationally guaranteed standards that ensure the fundamental freedoms and dignity of individuals and communities” (The Right to Water). Axiomatically, the absence of water for drinking, hygiene, and agricultural purposes negates sustainability for human life. As such, the impetus of ensuring that these needs are met rests at the crossroads of society and the State. Before we can ascertain the balance between internationally accepted human right and the legislative protection it garners, historical and political context must first be established.

Up until the 1980s, the trend of allocating and governing water services was a task left to domestic corporations and policy makers. The United Nations Watercourse Convention recognized the “important role that transboundary ground water resources play in human progress and development” in 1997, but it was not until 2002 that water was finally recognized by the United Nations as an independent right. (Eckstein, 526). A recent publication by the World Health Organization stated “the right to water clearly falls within the category of guarantees essential for securing an adequate standard of living, particularly since it is one of the most fundamental conditions for survival” (The Right to Water). In this way, fresh water is a legal entitlement, rather than a commodity or service. The WHO has further echoed this sentiment, and within the framework of diplomatic treaties explicates in detail the inexorable connection between water sanitation and quality of life, which includes the improvement of health and quality of alleviation of poverty at large.

It is obvious that with increased interdependency of States brought about by globalization, water rights have been convoluted. The process by which water is transformed from economic good to subordinate right is fraught with legal and economic obstacles. State obligations demanded by the various international legal instruments are not only variable, but also often difficult to enforce (Uruena, 8). Developing nations in particular have little incentive to provide water to marginalized and impoverished communities (Bluemel, 961). As a result, private corporations capitalize on the necessity of survival: those without access to water are forced to purchase water at artificially inflated prices. If government must provide access to water even to those who cannot afford it, corporations lose out on an opportunity that turns a profit of nearly a trillion dollars each year. Some estimates conjecture that the global trade of water accrues nearly $800 billion dollars (Notes on Global Corporate Dominance in the Fresh Water Sector). In the name of development, international institutions such as the World Bank have capitalized on this rapidly expanding enterprise. Consequently, treating water as an economic good perpetuates the notion that market forces alone must determine access to clean water supply, with little or no regard to equity or need (Bluemel, 963).

Unfortunately, corporate hegemony and neo-imperialist enterprise has created an unbalanced dichotomy. Human rights experts argue that water ought to be regulated by government, while politicians willingly promote the exploitation of their constituency for the sake of corporate gains. This dichotomy occurs principally because global governance over resources is still a relatively novel endeavor. Without transnational cooperation, regulation of water is simply a theoretical ideal. Analysts may point to established international doctrine to bolster their claims, but at the national or local level, the relative benefits of privatizing water may outweigh altruistic humanitarian goals.

The reframing of water as a “service” implied regulation by governing bodies such as the World Trade Organization (Uruena, 17). Ultimately, the opposing views of water regulation boil down to an elaborate power struggle between scholars and statesmen. If water is removed from the private corporate schema, the traditional boundaries established by legal and political entities are broken. Furthermore, removing water from the grasps of corporate ownership creates a power vacuum: if corporations lose accountability for the allocation of water services within the free market, with whom – or what – does responsibility ultimately rest?

For example, those in support of recognizing water as an inherent right fail to establish legitimate means to promote regulations or punish the failure to follow them, especially within 3rd world nations (Bluemel, 962). How might individuals at a grass roots level voice their concerns that their water supply is polluted and unfit for human consumption, let alone inadequate in availability? It is much easier to enact restrictions that would prohibit corporations from polluting watersheds than it is to mandate provisions for universal access to water. This is because regardless of resources available at the disposal of a particular State, all governments have “an immediate obligation to ensure that the minimum essential level of a right [human] is realized” (Kent, 54). If water is elevated to the status of a human right, this undeniably puts a pressure to provide for free a commoditable service that might otherwise turn a profit.

In so doing, the systemic hegemony of capitalist imperialism is challenged. While corporations may not conquer and subjugate populations in the traditional sense, the implications of domination cannot be overstated. In our increasingly connected world, multinational corporations have transcended State boundaries. Industries have in many respects replaced the hierarchical systems of traditional politics at the international level. The power of CEOs may dominate that of sovereigns, as many companies yield higher profits than the GDP of certain developing nations.

This leaves the global community an impasse. In accordance with international mandates, development as a poverty reduction strategy must be compatible with the norms of human rights (Bluemel, 986).It has long been asserted that the commodification and corporate control of water poses serious long-term risks and harms that might jeopardize an individual’s right to water (Arnold, 828). At the risk of unethical exploitation, multi-national corporations should not benefit financially from the violation of human rights.

© NaturAdvocate, written December 2010

Works Cited

Andreen, William L., The Evolving Contours of Water Law in the United States: Bridging the Gap between Water Rights, Land Use and the Protection of the Aquatic Environment. Environmental Planning and Law Journal, Vol. 23, 2006; U of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 08-06.

Arnold, Craig Anthony (Tony), Water Privatization Trends in the United States: Human Rights, National Security, and Public Stewardship (May 20, 2009). William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, Vol. 33, p. 785, 2009; University of Louisville School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 2009-06.

Bluemel, Erik B., The Implications of Formulating a Human Right to Water (February 15, 2005). Ecology Law Quarterly, Vol. 31, p. 957, 2004.

Eckstein, Gabriel, Water Scarcity, Conflict, and Security in a Climate Change World: Challenges and Opportunities for International Law and Policy (December 9, 2009). Texas Tech Law School Research Paper No. 2009-01; Wisconsin International Law Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2009.

Kent, George. Global Obligations for the Right to Food. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. Print.

Morsink, Johannes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999. Print.

“Notes on Global Corporate Dominance in the Fresh Water Sector.” Jubilee South – Home. Web. 08 Nov. 2010. <;.

Uruena, Rene, Expertise and Global Water Governance: How to Start Thinking About Power Over Water Resources? (November 12, 2007).

“WHO | The Right to Water.” Water Sanitation and Health (WSH). World Health Organization, 2010. Web. 06 Nov. 2010. <;.

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