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"Water Ethics: Humans Right to Water"

When viewed from space, our planet is full of water. Water covers nearly 71 percent of
the surface area of Earth and is vital for almost all life.
1
As humans, we can go many days
without food, but without water, we would die in forty-eight hours. Most of the water, 97.5
percent, on Earth is salt water, found in the seas and oceans. Only 2.5 percent of water on Earth
is freshwater, and most of the freshwater is found in glaciers, snow, ice fields, and deep
groundwater reserves.
2
The water humans use for drinking, bathing, agriculture, and industry
comes from rainwater, rivers, lakes, soil moisture, shallow groundwater reservoirs, or artificial
lakes. These sources make up less than one percent of the world's freshwater supply, or less than
0.02 percent of Earth's total water.
3
Little water is actually available for human use and this
water is distributed unevenly around the world. Countries like Brazil, Russia, and Canada have a
lot of water, whereas others, such as Israel and Spain, struggle to get enough. Inequalities also
exist within countries such as China, where some areas get little rainfall, while other areas are
often flooded. Water shortages affect about one-third of the world's population and water supply
is already a problem in many countries.
4
Access to water for life is a basic human need and a
fundamental human right.
If international law recognized the specific human right to water, many countries would
find such a right hard to fulfill. We are trying to meet insatiable demands by a supply that has
limits, both ecological and economic.
5
More than 2,000 million people are affected by water
shortages in over forty countries. More than 2,400 million people do not have provision for

1
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2
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(2009): 671.
3
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4
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3
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sanitation. Even where there is adequate water, the resources are increasingly polluted by human
and industrial activities.
6
Throughout history, humans have depended on access to clean water
on the ability of societies to harness the potential of water as a productive resource. At the
beginning of the twenty-first century unclean water is the world's second leading cause of death
for children. The ill health associated with deficits in water and sanitation undermines
productivity and economic growth, which reinforce the inequalities that characterize patterns of
globalization and trapping vulnerable households in cycles of poverty.
7

People have used several different methods for harvesting water for centuries. Humans
have been driven to control water by the desire to improve their lives with commerce,
agriculture, transportation, and flood control.
8
Until the end of the twentieth century, in many
areas, it was relatively easy to manipulate water to increase the supply to meet human and
industrial needs. People could build another dam, divert a river, or bore deeper into an aquifer.
9

Those who have been wealthy or creative enough to control water supplies, the irrigation
channels, or the barge canals, produced societies with larger, healthier, better-employed, and
more innovative populations. They have more items to sell to more places around the world and
more ways to get their products to other places. The earliest unearthed remains of dams date
from about 3000 B.C. in the area of what is modern day Jordan. These dams redirected water
into a series of interlocking reservoirs with underground pipelines. Dams have allowed for
storing water, irrigation, and the production of hydroelectric power. In the twentieth century,
President Roosevelt ordered the construction of massive dams on some of America's greatest

6
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7
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8
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9
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rivers including the Colorado, the Columbia, and the Tennessee. Congress passed the
Reclamation Act of 1902 to advance western settlement by moving and storing water.
Encouraged by congress, the Bureau of Reclamation built 355 dams with reservoirs, 254
diversion dams, 16,000 miles of canals, and 52 hydroelectric plants, all within a half century.
10

Soon, worldwide dams were being built. Josef Stalin after World War II built a series of
hydroelectric dams in western Russia and Ukraine that transformed the Volga River. China's
Mao Zedong, in the late 1950s built several dams in that country.
11
One of the most common
ways to access water is to drill for groundwater stored in aquifers. Aquifers hold more than 95
percent of the world's liquid freshwater and contain water that has been there for an average of
fourteen hundred years. Many of the world's largest cities, including Mexico City, London, and
Jakarta, have aquifers to meet most of their water needs.
12
Rural areas too far from piped water
systems depend on dug wells drilled to reach aquifers, underground water supplies. Aquifers
provide a quick and inexpensive solution to water access; however, sometimes groundwater
pollutes the wells, people take too much, and some wells run dry.
13
Some countries with few
sources of freshwater, but easy access to seawater or other saline water, use desalination
techniques to remove salt and create freshwater. Desalination is widely used in the Middle East,
North Africa, and a number of island communities. Unfortunately, the process of desalination is
expensive and uses a lot of energy.
14

The story of the Aral Sea is one of the great warnings about the dangers of controlling
water without considering all the consequences. The Aral Sea was at one time the world's fourth

10
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11
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12
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13
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largest fresh water lake. Soviet central planners mapped out a plan of using central Asian rivers
for irrigation which, diverting water from the rivers that feed the Aral Sea, caused it to shrink.
The result has been that since 1960, the surface area of the Aral Sea has shrunk more than forty
percent, its volume has dropped more than sixty percent, and the salinity levels have tripled.
15

Historically, people have relied on nature to clean waste water and recycle it through the
water cycle into clean, usable supplies. For example, wetlands perform an important role in this
aspect, removing pollutants as the water passes slowly through them, like giant filters. However,
many wetlands have now been built upon or drained for farmland. An instance of this loss is the
Florida Everglades. A 50 percent reduction of the Everglades has been directly due to
agriculture and home building. Also, today, the natural systems are not able to break down and
absorb many of the complex pollutants humans produce. These pollutants are not only found in
surface waters, but increasingly in groundwater across the world.
16

Another issue regarding water is, for shared resources, who has the right to water? For
example, if a river begins in one country does that give that nation more right to the rivers' water
than the other nations along the river's course? What if the river forms a border between two
countries, who has the rights then? The World Bank has been called in to resolve several
disputes over water rights. Between 1950 and 2001, there were over five hundred disputes over
shared water resources.
17
Past water treaties have been created in order to avert conflict and
divide limited resources in reasonable ways. At least two hundred water treaties have been
signed since 1950, and some of these have taken up to thirty years to negotiate.
18
In early 2005,
Pakistan requested that the World Bank help resolve a dispute with India over India's plans to

13
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16
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17
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18
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build the Baglihar hydropower dam on the Chenab River in Indian - controlled Kashmir. The
Chenab River is a main source of water for Pakistan's main agricultural region, Punjab, and the
Pakastani government was concerned that the dam would reduce the flow of water reaching
Punjab.
19
Similar treaties exist for the Danube River in Europe and the Mekong River in Asia.
20

These treaties provide a structure for nations to address their differences in managing and
monitoring shared resources.
Some countries have abundant, untapped water store to support their populations, while
others are already using most of their available water. Water is becoming increasingly polluted
and although many developed countries have the technology and money to afford to clean their
water, the majority of countries in the world do not.
21
At the beginning of the twenty-first
century, the international community had not reached any universal or written agreement about
the rights to water, although water is one of the most fundamental human needs. If water were
made a very specific human right that could be agreed upon, it would focus governments and
require them to meet the basic need of millions of the world's people.
22
Delivering clean water,
removing wastewater, and providing sanitation are three of the most basic foundations for human
progress.
23
A higher degree of international cooperation could take many forms. Countries with
an abundance of water could assist those countries with shortages through water transfers with
methods such as pipelines. Cancelling the debts of some of the poorest nations would free up
money that could then be spent on meeting basic water needs. Some of the world's poorest
countries are paying some of the world's highest prices for water, reflecting the limited coverage

19
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20
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21
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22
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23
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of water utilities in the slums and informal settlements where the poorest people live.
24
Sharing
experience, water-saving technology, and practices could be helpful. For example, Israel has
developed world expertise in drip irrigation and is using this method in Kenya's Rift Valley to
help flower and vegetable growers make efficient use of a scarce water supply. Drip irrigation
uses water more efficiently than conventional irrigation methods by releasing water slowly to a
specific area at the plants' roots. Instead of wasting water because it cannot all be absorbed into
the ground, drip irrigation allows for time for the water to be absorbed where plants need it
most.
25
By agreeing to international standards and pollution controls, countries can work
together to ensure the environmental protection of water resources.
26

As the United Nations Secretary General stated, "Access to safe water is a fundamental
human need and, therefore, a basic human right."
27
In developed countries, clean water is
available at the twist of a tap. Private and hygienic sanitation is taken for granted. Children do
not die for want of a glass of clean water. Young girls are not kept home from school to make
long daily journeys to collect water from streams and rivers. Victims of waterborne diseases do
not fill hospital wards and morgues.
28
Thrifty irrigation techniques, rainwater harvesting, water-
saving plumbing fixtures, wastewater recycling are all ways to reduce the amount of water
required for agriculture, production of material goods, and meeting household needs.
29

Governments, the World Bank, and other institutions that help set water priorities and directly
fund many projects can help with their investment policies and decisions. Improving efficiency
of water use without dramatic changes in technology can change the paradigm for water

24
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23
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26
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2009), 229.
27
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28
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29
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management, development, and planning in some instances. For example, as populations grow
and demand increases, water managers are faced with the option of either developing new water
supplies at high economic and environmental costs, or figuring out how to improve the
efficiency of existing uses. In the United States and other developed countries, total demand for
water has not increased in more than two decades despite dramatic population increases.
Improved efficiency of water use permits existing supplies to go farther and do more.
30

Community based projects will better focus the needs of the poorest people and engage local
people in the development efforts. Smaller-scale projects such as pumps and wells for
groundwater development or small reservoirs to collect and store local runoff will cause much
less disruption of natural systems than large dams and river diversion.
31
The potential solutions
to access to fresh water include the new technologies of water transfer and desalination, which
are still expensive and energy-intensive, but promising. Privatizing water systems with local
governmental participation could add a profit motive to delivering water that will improve its
quality, especially in poorer countries where governments have failed to bring about water
management on their own. Lending agencies are rethinking their support for the big dams and
diversion projects like in the past and instead, may begin to offer funding for local development
projects that could supply water to small groups of populations.
32
"Water is fundamental for life
and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human
dignity. It is a pre-requisite to the realization of all other human rights."
33


30
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31
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32
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33
M. 8amon Llamas, Luls MarLlnez-CorLlna, and AdlLl Mukher[l, eds., 7"$-* ($8'1# (London: 1aylor & lrancls Croup,
2009), vll.