The Right to Water

The right to water can be defined as the right to access sufficient water. “Access” includes both affordability and availability. “Sufficient” refers to both the quality and the quantity of water necessary to meet basic human needs.

Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) does not explicitly mention water, Article 25 proclaims “[e]veryone has the right to a standard of living adequate of the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”  Satisfying the standards of the Declaration cannot be done without water of sufficient quantity and quality to maintain human health and wellbeing. Similar guarantees are implicitly recognized in the legally binding Covenants.

Only two treaties explicitly refer to a right to water. Article 22 of The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) ensures that women, especially in rural areas, “enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply … .” Article 24 (2) (c) of The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) recognizes a child’s right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health through provisions including “nutritious foods and clean drinking water”

One of the UN Millennium Development Goals is “to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford, safe drinking water.” Although this ambitious goal will almost surely not be met by the time indicated, the Millennium Goal recognized the key role of water in agriculture, energy, health, biodiversity, and ecosystems, as well as in combating poverty. Clearly the availability of safe and adequate water supply is critical to every aspect of human life and human rights. Yet If current trends persist, by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will be living with serious water shortages or almost no water at all.[1]

In July 2010 the UN General Assembly declared “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.”[2] It also voiced deep concern that almost 900 million people lack access to clean drinking water. Studies also indicate about 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year and 443 million school days are lost because of water- and sanitation-related diseases.

Changing Conditions Threaten the World’s Water Supply

Many conditions are increasing the global water crisis:

  • Increasing population: The world population has grown from 2.5 billion in 1950 to over 7 billion today, and is predicted to jump to over 9 billion in the next 50 years. However, the potable water supply per person has fallen by 58%.
  • Increasing poverty: Contamination, depletion, and unequal distribution of water is exacerbating existing poverty.
  • Climate change: Global warming with attendant droughts and floods has increased as environmental conditions have deteriorated.
  • Rising consumption of water: Increased irrigation and industrialization have led to a nearly seven-fold increase in freshwater withdrawals.
  • Mismanagement of water: These factors include lack of adequate water institutions, diversion of public resources for private gain, deforestation, overgrazing, loss of wetlands.

Related Human Rights Instruments


[1] UNESCO Courier, February 1999.
[2] UN Resolution 64/292.