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What is the right to water?

Photo courtesy of the U.N. (#187253C by Evan Schneider)

While a human being may survive without food for several days, water deprivation can kill a person within a matter of hours. Water is also a requirement for the most basic activities vital to sustaining human life, including agriculture, cooking, and sanitation. Yet while water sustains life, it can also bring death if contaminated. Some of the deadliest diseases, which kill millions around the world each year, are carried in unclean water. Access to adequate amounts of clean water, for both consumption and sanitation, is a prerequisite for a healthy life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares: ???all human beings have the right to life???; this includes the right to water.

Components of the Right to Water
Violations of the right to water come in many forms, including industrial pollution of water sources, failure to provide purification and sanitation for the urban poor, and pricing of water delivery beyond the reach of the rural poor. Below are the basic components of the right to water:


  • Drinking
  • Cooking
  • Sanitation: Enough to prevent water-washed diseases
  • Food: Agriculture and Livestock
  • To guarantee the right to development: water for economically sustainable enterprise


  • There must be defined maximum acceptable levels of industrial pollutants
  • Water must be free from water-borne diseases
  • Sanitation is an integral part of the right to water
  • Deliberate poisoning or contamination is an outright violation of the right to water


  • Water must be within reasonable distance from places of abode, work
  • Accessing water should not put withdrawer in physical danger
  • Accessing water should not expose withdrawer to threat of violence
  • Water should be accessible to those with disabilities
  • Access to water must be available to all, with no discrimination


  • The price of water or water delivery should never put its purchase beyond means of poorest sectors of society
  • The price of water or water delivery should not compromise poor peoples??? ability to enjoy other rights, such as the right to food and the right to education
  • A minimum lifeline supply of water is a good way of ensuring poor people???s right to water. Rising block tariffs are an appropriate means of encouraging conservation for non-subsistence uses of water
  • Means-testing to obtain water tariff subsidies should not place undue burden on poor families


  • All peoples have a right of control of their watersheds, in keeping with sustainable, ecological practice. This should be emphasized for indigenous peoples
  • Water should never be used as a weapon of war or occupation
  • Transboundary watersheds must shared in a fair and equitable manner


  • Women???s right to water has an interdependent relationship with their enjoyment of other rights. Women???s political participation is severely compromised by the labor required to draw water; their enjoyment of the right to water is compromised by their political and economic disempowerment
  • Affirmative steps should be taken to ensure women???s participation in decision-making over water related issues
  • The right to water vs. ???water rights???: There must recognition of the rights of users of water, not just owners of land through which water runs. Women are the primary users of water, but it is usually men who own the land, and thus the ???rights??? to the water. This must be carefully balanced, too, with indigenous rights to water, which is often connected to land rights


  • Usage of water should not compromise the ability of ecosystems to sustain life, including human beings
  • Contemporary uses of water should not compromise the right of future generations to adequate supplies of clean water
  • Subsistence uses of water (e.g. drinking, sanitation, cooking, subsistence, or agriculture) as well as water for nature should take priority over other uses such as industrial manufacturing, large scale commercial agriculture, leisure (e.g. golfing) and hydroelectric development
  • Water in its place: whenever possible, large scale diversions of water across watershed lines and within watersheds should be avoided (e.g. aqueducts, dams, transnational bulk shipments)

CESR has fought for the recognition that the right to water is a fundamental human right.  See CESR's factsheets on the right to water: