The Evolving and Incompletely Realized Human Right to Water

Few things are more crucial to human life and welfare than water. Sufficient supplies of clean fresh water are indispensable for drinking and washing, growing and preparing food, maintaining health, and sustaining vital environmental systems. Without water, humans simply cannot survive, much less flourish. Yet the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) nowhere included water in its enumeration of basic rights.

Subsequent recognition of the human right to water coalesced slowly, and its effective scope, conceptual approach, and empirical impact remain contested. Water was not entirely absent from international human rights instruments in the wake of the UDHR. The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, reference water as contributing to adequate living standards and the right to health. Only in 2010 did the UN General Assembly formally establish access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right. Ultimately grounded in the right to an adequate standard of living—including for health, food, and housing—enshrined in the UDHR, the international community has gradually forged a broad consensus affirming that the right to water “is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” 

Codifying water as a human right helps to guide policy development and implementation, provides global standards and objectives to frame government responsibilities and evaluate outcomes, and facilitates accountability by empowering rights holders to identify and claim their rights. Agenda 2030, the global development framework agreed by the United Nations in 2015, explicitly sets the Sustainable Development Goals within a vision “to realize the human rights of all.” Reaffirming the commitment to ensuring the human right to water, Sustainable Development Goal 6 seeks to achieve universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2030.

Since 2015, an additional 687 million people have gained safe drinking water services. Yet the world still falls far short of realizing the goal of universal access. In 2022, 2.2 billion people worldwide remained without safely managed drinking water and 3.5 billion did not have safely managed sanitation. Women, children, and marginalized populations, such as those living in informal urban settlements, are particularly impacted by the lack of safe water and sanitation.

Insufficient access to water and sanitation services in turn compromises the fulfilment of other fundamental human rights. Unsafe water markedly undermines the rights to life and health. Inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene account for two million preventable deaths each year, including 13 percent of all deaths among children under five. And unavailability of adequate clean water threatens access to food. Scarce or polluted water supplies can hamper households’ ability to produce or safely prepare foods and push families to reduce the foods they cook and consume or change their diets to less water-intensive and less nutritious alternatives.

Indeed, the international community holds all human rights to be indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. Realizing the human right to water highlights the complexity of this assertion. Governments and institutions have positive duties to citizens to ensure adequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Meeting these obligations, though, entails navigating trade-offs with other claims on water resources—including food production—where water uses in one sector can impact those in others. As global populations increasingly urbanize, for example, answering the drinking water demands of expanding cities frequently encroaches on agricultural water needs in surrounding peri-urban areas. At the same time, on a planet projected to count almost two billion more inhabitants by 2050, food production will need to grow 50 percent by mid-century, necessitating water withdrawals 30 percent higher than today, further straining the water supplies available for domestic use.

Better fulfilling the human right to water for all the world’s people will require better water management policies. To make policies is to make choices. Deficiencies in realizing access to adequate water services more often reflect not shortfalls in water availability but shortcomings of water governance and institutions. Lack of investment and participation in underperforming or exclusionary institutions frustrates effective planning and resource allocations for water services while thwarting citizens from knowing and claiming what they are entitled to demand and expect from water service policymakers and providers.

Anchored in principles of universality, inclusion, participation, nondiscrimination, and rule of law rooted in the UDHR, human rights-based approaches strive both to enable all communities and groups (rights-holders) to take part in collective decisionmaking and to improve the capacities of governments and institutions to fulfill their obligations. Human rights-based approaches can underpin more effective, equitable, and sustainable water policymaking.

David Michel is the senior fellow for water security with the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.