The human water rights and access might seem like a sure thing when you live in a western country because after all, it represents something we all have. But is it possible that humankind takes water resources and our overall water right for granted?

The Right to Water, Water Poverty, and the Bleak Future Ahead

Clean water is the foundation of sustainable development and the eradication of poverty and hunger. Unfortunately, in our day and age, the water crises rank on the third place of global risks’ top as coined by the World Economic Forum. What does human water right mean? How does lack of water effect people and what are we doing today to secure safe water for everyone?

Understanding Water Rights

In 2010, the United Nations established that it is a human right to have access to clean water. The concept of “water rights” refers to an old water law describing people’s right to use water from groundwater, streams, rivers, and ponds.

Dating back to Roman times, the water law specified that no land was man-owned but owned by the Republic and that people could obtain temporary rights to clean water.

Today, all countries do things a little different, but in the United States, water rights belong to landowners, while the Federal government oversees and allocates clean water for everyone.

To understand better the legal and ethical problem of human water rights, we have to address two particular issues that have clear connections to water law, policies, and the status quo of water resources available to humankind.

The Reasonable Use Doctrine

Water rights rely on ownership of the land that water flows through or rests.  States or countries that own the property have the freedom of diverting and using the available water as long as they use it reasonably.

  • In the framework of the Reasonable Use Doctrine, each owner has the right to use any water, if the use is reasonable in relation to the use of other riparian landowners.

Water law is complex, and the reasonable use doctrine somehow falls in the “common sense” category. But how “reasonable” is an owner’s water use (and by “owner” let’s assume we talk about cities or countries) when that owner endangers the source and the very planet we live on?

Division of Water Rights

Implemented in Utah and other American states, the Division of Water Rights is a state agency regulating the appropriation and distribution of water in the state. Since everyone depends on clean water, the government’s job is to protect and provide water through an appropriate authority who enacts the regulations to protect and regulate clean water.

A Brief History of Water Rights, Policies and Advancements

We have many bodies, laws, and policies that provide and protect water rights, globally and in the U.S. Let’s check out the brief history of water rights in our contemporary times to understand better where we started from and where we are going.

General Comment no. 15 (2002)

United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No. 15 on the human water rights in 2002. The Comment stipulated,

The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.

In this framework, we should emphasize on the water rights definitions.

According to the U.N.,

The right to water [is described] as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.

The Comment perfectly blended in the 2002 “Millennium Development Goals” signed by the U.N., one of the most important programs of our times. Among its goals, the act encouraged all member states to commit to reduce child mortality and to lower in half the number of people with no access to safe water by 2015. We are yet far from that goal, but we still have to praise the progress we have done so far.

The Human Right to Water and Sanitation (2010)

water rights

Source: United Nations

Through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations’ General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation explicitly and in detail. It also acknowledging that clean drinking water and sanitation are crucial to the accomplishment of all human rights.

Essential for human life, reducing poverty and ensuring food security, clean water should be a priority on a global level. In reverse, with little or no access to safe water comes hard hygiene and health issues that are life threating.

The Clean Water Rule (2015)

The U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers issued the Clean Water Rule in 2015 to restore and maintain the integrity and safety of American waters. This rule clarifies the purpose and goals of the Clean Water Act (1972) to further protect drinking water sources like streams and wetlands from chemical, physical, and biological threats.

Unfortunately, the Clean Water Rule received its fair share of backlash and negative feedback because it protected too many waters. After legal shenanigans, lawsuits, suspensions, and the U.S. administration’s interventions to put a stop to the Clean Water Rule, the clean water advocates registered a partial win in 2018.

The courts ruled in favor of the Clean Water Rule, setting aside the suspension on a national level and allowing the rule to take effect in 26 states.

The Dirty Water Rule (2018)

The Trump administration proposed the Dirty Water Rule in 2018. According to advocates against this rule, its implementation would

Wipe out Clean Water Act protections for at least 18 percent of the nation’s streams and at least 51% of all wetlands across the country.

The Clean Water for All is a coalition that brings together clean water advocates from all backgrounds, experiences, and interests on both local, regional, and national levels. Their job is to promote, defend, and protect clean water for everyone.

The coalition is currently fighting the Dirty Water Rule, having gathered more than half a million Americans to comment against the rule. Now, the coalition opposes the latest EPA actions. In 2019, the EPA announced it would no longer protect and preserve surface waters that have been previously contaminated by pollution through groundwater moving.

Water Poverty and the Right to Access Clean Water

water rights and water poverty

If you look at the big picture, you can easily understand that we do take our water for granted. Considering it will never end, we contribute – as a species – to staggering levels of ocean pollution every day, and we do not seem to be stopping any time soon.

The heartbreaking truth is that there are people all over the world (in some parts of the western world and the U.S. as well) who do not have access to clean water. Too many places are currently in severe lack of water and billions of people suffer the negative impact of the global water crisis.

According to the World Health Organization’s latest reports, 1 in 3 people on a global level do not have access to clean, safe water. The WHO – UNICEF statistics also show that:

  • Around 2.2 billion people on the globe still lack access to water services with secure management;
  • 2 billion people require sanitation services with safe management;
  • Three billion people lack the necessary handwashing facilities.

The good news? The same report shows that since the 2000s, 2.1 billion people gained proper access to safely managed sanitation services. Moreover, in many parts of the world, the wastes produced still do not benefit from safe administration.

How Did We Arrive Here?

  • First, we use tremendous amounts of water in agriculture. However, pollution from towns and cities, industry and agriculture directly affect water supplies as well as our freshwater ecosystems.
  • Second, we also are facing a growing and changing population and new patterns of intensive water use. Moreover, we are not taking care of wastewater as correctly as we should.

Another problem is rising temperatures and years of drought due to global warming. Other reasons for lack of water enter the political and ethical conflicts’ realm.

In developed countries, the water crisis has two main underlying contributing factors:

  • More and more severe climate changes interfere with typical patterns of rainfall; therefore, they are leading to inadequate and irregular supplies of fresh water;
  • High levels of pollution found in the drinking water. It is an issue we discuss every time we talk about water filtration and purification; or when we review different types of residential water filters.

The Water Crisis at its Worst

The countries facing water scarcity by 2020 are Yemen, Libya, Jordan, and Western Sahara. Most of these countries are having water security issues because of political conflict or because they are in the desert.

In the U.S., we also have states facing water crises: California, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona.

Water Scarcity vs. Poverty

human water rights

Regarding water scarcity, it is a hot topic these days. The University of Arizona recently issued a report (citing data published by FEW Resources) that caught public attention like wildfire. The numbers are more than concerning:

  • By 2020, 1.8 billion people will experience absolute water scarcity, described as little to no water resources to sustain life;
  • Two-thirds of the world will have to deal with water-stressed conditions, translated into limited or hard to find water resources;
  • By 2025, approximately half the world will be experiencing severe water-stressed conditions.

The Issue of Water Poverty

Specialists define water poverty as:

A situation where a nation or region cannot afford the cost of sustainable clean water to all people at all times.

Water poverty is a huge challenge and leads to:

  • Food insecurity. It is a well-known fact that we need water to grow plants or raise livestock. The lack of clean water means that more people will suffer and die as a result of hunger.
  • Diseases. Water poverty cascades into sanitation issues. They are a leading cause of water born diseases like cholera, dysentery, typhoid, giardia. According to Action Against Hunger, 2.2 million children die each year from water-related causes (including 1.5 million lives lost because of poor sanitation).
  • Poverty. Lack of water and poverty have a causal relationship and that access to clean sources of water is crucial to reducing poverty.

Luckily, some charities are working on providing water for everyone and raise awareness on water security and water rights.

  • Charity Water: A non-profit organization that works towards bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries.
  • Global Water Leaders: A group that uses water experts from around the globe to make water better.
  • Stockholm International Water Institute: Works on research and development to help leaders strengthen water governance for a just, prosperous, and sustainable future.
  • Water for Good: Fighting water poverty in the Central African Republic.

Water Rights, Policies, and Advancements for the Near Future

Today, we still have a sufficient supply of water to provide for all our needs, but the situation is dire.  Moreover, the water of the future may not be available where humans and nature need it most. On the other hand, future water may not have the required quality to sustain life and development.

It is crucial to all of us to develop systems for delivering a satisfactory quality of water. There are different approaches to make sure that water rights’ implementation is concrete, accessible, and sustainable.

Working Together for Water Rights

Leadership is essential when it comes to implementing water policies, and it includes governments, local authorities, NGOs, volunteers, lobby & advocacy groups, and international agencies to help revise water rights, laws, and policies.

Of course, just because the right to water became international law, this does not mean we implement it correctly.  These rights are a tool for both authorities and key actors to advocate and turn them into reality. The human right to water need to receive a clear definition and strategy, so all parties involved to implement them.

Water Rights: Inviolable, Irreplaceable, and Mandatory

The United Nations’ 2010 Resolution made one of the first and most vital steps in effectively recognizing and making official the importance of

The equal distribution of safe drinking water and sanitation as a fundamental part in the fulfillment of all human rights.

They also stressed that all nations should bear and share the responsibility to promote and safeguard these human rights. The UN encourages states and organizations to find and provide the required financial resources, skills, expertise, technology, and human resources. This is mandatory to guarantee clean, safe water and proper sanitation to everyone.

Today’s voices shout as one: the human water rights should be inviolable, irreplaceable, and mandatory. Here is why:

  • UN’s policies are in correlation with the current climate changes, pollution, and human encroaching upon the land;
  • More and more ecological and water crises emerge every day;
  • Water scarcity will have dramatic consequences of  on life itself on this planet.


This is the moment when we should all join hands in admitting that water and sanitation are essential for health, life, and development. They are the prerequisites for the dignity and prosperity of humankind as a whole. Only then, we could start making visible and sustainable changes!

What is your opinion on water rights? Is access to clean water a human right? Do you take water for granted or are you making mindful efforts towards conservation? Do you have concerns about the grim previsions regarding humanity’s access to clean water from 2025 and beyond? Let’s talk in the comment section below!

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