Is water a human right?

Every person on earth needs water to live, but who owns the water supply?

When the United Nations was founded after World War II, the organization codified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), intending to inspire a new era of human rights following the Holocaust. While not legally binding, this document advocated for a vast array of rights, including the right to food, but it contained no mention of water. However, by 2015, the United Nations included clean water and sanitation among its 17 Sustainable Development Goals aimed at the year 2030.

Thus, the view of water has changed over time at the world’s governing body, but how is it seen in other circles? Do people believe that water is a human right–or a private commodity?

As told by James Salzman, an expert on the history of drinking water, the debate reached a boiling point in Bolivia in the 1990s. At that time, the Bolivian government contracted with a private company to provide water to its citizens. Through the privatization process, the cost of water jumped by over 20 percent. Bolivians were outraged and rioted in the streets. As a result of the protests, the private contract was dissolved.

The activists then worked with international colleagues to write the Cochabamba Declaration that included the statement: “Water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government, therefore, it should not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes.”

Similarly, as recently as 2013, the CEO of Nestle seemed to say that water should be privatized, like any other food. This resulted in an immediate public backlash, with Nestle walking back his statements.

In the United States, the majority of the water supply is owned by public entities, and residents pay a subsidized fee for the service. Americans are fortunate to have some of the safest public drinking water in the world. Yet, as we’ve seen in Flint, Michigan and elsewhere, problems still exist. In addition, as water has become a packaged product and alternative to public water in recent decades, it has come to be seen as more of a product, than a right.

Another way to think about it is that water is a right, and there are products that exist to enhance the taste and purity of tap water. For example, the Coway Aquamega 100. The triple-filter system purifies water right at the kitchen tap, and reduces common drinking water contaminants by up to 99.9 percent.