OPINION: As climate change impacts accelerate, we need to re-think the human right to water

by Lyla Mehta, Claudia Ringler and Shiney Varghese | @Lylamehta | Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
Saturday, 21 March 2020 13:30 GMT

A girl walks in water after heavy rains and floods forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes, in the town of Pibor, Boma state, South Sudan, November 6, 2019.Picture taken November 6, 2019. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

World Water Day is an opportunity to strengthen the connection between the rights to water and food, to ensure climate resilient future for all

Lyla Mehta is Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and Visiting Professor at the Norwegian university of Life Sciences.

Claudia Ringler is Deputy Director of Environment and Production Technology Division at IFPRI.

Shiney Varghese is Senior Policy Analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

The recent Australian drought and flooding in Britain and East Africa show how climate change and extreme events create uncertainties and irregularities in water availability with far-reaching impacts on human wellbeing and ecosystem health. In all cases, poor and marginalised people are most at risk. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy will further heighten the existing vulnerabilities of the poor.

Ten years since the UN recognised access to safe drinking-water and sanitation as a human right, 2.5 billion people globally still lack access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation facilities, affecting their health and nutrition. But, due to the narrow focus of the right to water on domestic provision, wider challenges around accessing water for survival and livelihoods in the context of climate change are not being considered.

The current right to water reflects a sectoral division between water for drinking and domestic purposes, and water for productive uses, such as agriculture, and subsistence or livelihoods. This distinction is highly problematic for local users for whom there is little sense in separating water for daily drinking and washing and water for small-scale productive activities crucial for everyday life.

Our book ‘Water, Food Security, Nutrition and Social Justice’ demonstrates that without water there can be no food security or nutrition, especially for poor people. Water brings life to ecosystems, and is fundamental for all productive sectors, including energy and manufacturing. While there is enough water and food to go around, there remain inequalities in access, determined by socio-economic, political, gender and power relations also increasingly exacerbated by climate change. Water of sufficient quantity and quality is essential for agricultural production as well as the preparation, processing and consumption of food.

At the local level, water, land and food are tightly linked, yet remain disconnected in national policies and programmes. This disconnection has led to UN Special Rapporteurs failing to address land and water grabs that have undermined poor people’s rights to water and food. Therefore, it’s important to improve coherence between water, food security and nutrition related policies, strategies and rights frameworks, and enable pro-poor water management and water governance around food security and nutrition. To enable the poorest and marginalised people to access water for both survival and productive uses requires pro-poor investments linked to conducive, enabling conditions, such as strong water rights systems that provide smallholder farmers and other marginal water users access to increasingly contested water resources.

A broader conceptualisation of the right to water, incorporating water for individual and household food and nutrition requirements, would increase State obligations to prioritise the rights of the poor and marginalised. This joint priority for both water and food is particularly true for rural areas where most of the world’s poor still live, nearly three-quarters of whom are also “water poor.” It’s time that international deliberations around the right to water focus on rural communities’ access to safe water and the fact that for rural communities, realisation of their rights to life and to food is dependent on their ability to access water in their immediate environment.

This broader framing would also help the rural poor and marginalised to address climate extremes and variability as states would need to protect and improve access to sanitation and water for both domestic and livelihoods needs. These groups are not only the most exposed to adverse climate change impacts, but are increasingly vulnerable to dispossessions arising through land and water grabs.

The main problem for the realisation of basic human rights is not financial but political. The global recognition of water as a human right in 2010—following a decade-long protracted struggle—shows that ideas often rejected as utopian and impractical are realised when the time is ripe. The Human Right to Water and Sanitation should now either be expanded to include subsistence and productive uses while conserving ecosystem functions and supporting climate resilience or a separate human right for water for livelihood and subsistence purposes considered.

World Water Day is an opportunity for governments, donors and the UN to seriously strengthen the linkages and synergies between the rights to water and food, to ensure a healthy, productive and climate resilient future for all.