A right to water? Geographico-legal perspectives
One of the most vexed questions haunting the global environmental movement is the question of environmental “rights”. We are said, variously, to have rights to a clean environment, to suf¼cient resources to support biophysical life and even socioeconomic development, to have a right to know about environmental quality, etc. Even the natural environment itself is sometimes said to have rights of its own, though how these may be articulated is a matter of considerable debate (cf Varner, 2002; Regan, 2004). However framed, one of the central rights often posited is the right to water. And this right does seem intuitively correct since, after all, water is absolutely central to human existence and to the human imagination. Biologically we are more than 2/3 composed of water and perhaps unsurprisingly, many cultures, around the world and down through the ages, have developed a complex and exalted conception of this simple but versatile molecule, two parts Hydrogen and one part Oxygen. H2O. Some cultures even equate water with life itself (Staddon, 2010). Even a minor de¼ciency in water – say 5% of biophysical need – can seriously debilitate a human being. We can survive weeks without food, but only days without water (less in hotter, more arid places). Only air is more immediately necessary to survival.1 And yet, as the economist Adam Smith pointed out long ago, there is the enduring paradox that while water, which is vital for life, is often considered valueless – a free good with which one can do what one will (though this is changing rapidly) – diamonds, which are biophysically useless, are highly valued. We may not like the direction of travel established by Smith and subsequent neoliberals who have sought to value water in very particular (market-dominated) ways, but we can surely recognize that these are strange prior ities indeed! Be that as it may, there seem to be good reasons, prima facie, to propose not just a general recognition of a right to water, but its codi¼cation in laws, treaties, and binding conventions of any and every sort.