The year 2003 was identified by the United Nations as the International Year of Freshwater with the aim, partly, of reaffirming the UN's Millennium Development Goal: “to halve, by the year 2015… the proportion of people who are unable to reach, or to afford, safe drinking water” and “to stop the unsustainable exploitation of water resources.” This ambitious goal, endorsed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg in 2002, also set a new target of halving the proportion of people who do not have access to basic sanitation by 2015.

The WSSD recognised the key role of water in agriculture, energy, health, biodiversity and ecosystems as well as in combating poverty. The link between social well-being and environmental health is now well recognised and any attempts to secure social well-being that do not acknowledge the environmental realities will ultimately fail.

Formally acknowledging water as a human right, and giving content and effect to this right could be a good way of encouraging the international community and governments to enhance their efforts to satisfy basic human needs and to meet the Millennium Development Goals. It could serve to increase the pressure to translate such a right into concrete national and international legal obligations and responsibilities, and to focus attention on the need to resolve conflicts over the use of shared water.

But critical questions arise in relation to a right to water. Why do we need a right to water? What would be the benefits and content of such a right? What mechanisms would be required for its effective implementation? Should the duty to provide basic water and sanitation for all be placed on governments alone, or should the responsibility in this regard be borne also by private actors, both individual and corporate, national as well as international? Is another ‘academic debate’ on this subject warranted when action is really what is necessary?

This paper addresses these critical questions in detail. It not only raises the questions, it also provides the material and analysis necessary to address them seriously. Without claiming to prescribe the answers, the paper seeks to clearly and carefully articulate the issues and to set out the competing arguments and challenges as it explores the contribution that a human right to water could make to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. In doing so the paper has provided an excellent platform for critical thinking and informed debate.

This paper was produced through the collaborative efforts of staff and interns of the IUCN Environmental Law Centre and of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law (CEL). It has benefited from the assistance of the former Chair of CEL and from peer review by experts in the UNDP and the FAO. It bears witness to the value of partnerships in our collective efforts to meet the challenge of achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Achim Steiner
IUCN Director General

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