Speaking of Water Part III: Water as a human right

As concerns about access to water have grown, so have new understandings of how to legally address the issue. Some claim that access to water is a human right, while others have opened a debate about whether it is a human right or just a necessity—and what the difference between these two conceptions means. But these debates miss the point.

Engaging in a complex discussion about whether or not access to water is a human right promises no alteration in water policy anywhere. States violate human rights all the time, and the international legal mechanisms to enforce adherence remain, by design and collective will, impotent. In particular, transnational or ecologically defined human rights issues have suffered from the subordination of human rights to national sovereignty.

Many states, including in the Middle East, are wary of human rights laws on the grounds that they are “imposed” by the United Nations or other global powers hiding behind the facade of international organizations. But there is rarely any consequence for ignoring human rights. Although some states may ponder the consequences of adding access to water as a human right, the actual ramifications would prove negligible. What legal penalty would a state incur for failing to cast water as a human right in national legislation? While proponents of the human rights approach to water access say, that it is important to speak of rights so that people are not left out of the discussion, the real world implications would be close to zero.

Casting water as a human right invites the danger of turning the language of human rights into a language of entitlement. Humans have a right to how much water? For what purposes? The human rights discourse also seems vulnerable to cooptation in security terms. A state might claim that an entire nation’s human rights are compromised by “inadequate” access to water.

It is not difficult to imagine Israel, for example, casting the Litani River or, should a Palestinian state come into being, West Bank aquifers, in such terms. Egypt might do the same with the waters of the Nile. One state claiming waters as a “human right” might camouflage the deprivation of another state’s people or a stateless people. Lacking both a mechanism of enforcement and a coherent definition and providing a convenient excuse for dispossession, discourses of water as a human right represent, at best, empty talk, and at worst another opportunity for the violent intervention of states.

Authoritarian states have a vested interest in expropriating the water of marginalized groups. Palestinians do not benefit from the same water-centered agricultural policies as Israeli farms. More broadly, casting water as a human right will not provide clean water to refugees, internally displaced persons, nomads or any subgroup that does not fit easily within the nation’s structures, because states have little to gain in return.

Legislating a new human right will not guarantee that states respect that right, extend it equally to all residents or refrain from using it as a political tool. This is not to argue that no one should call attention to the resource deprivation of vulnerable populations. In the Middle East, however, with its distant and recent past of interventions presented in humanitarian terms, the introduction of new and “universal,” but poorly defined, human rights has consequences that extend beyond the realm of discourse.

Water also has a cultural and symbolic importance. Any attempt to build consensus around water use or “rights” will have to come to terms with local communities’ attachment to space, including the water sources that they may hold dear. In nearly all communities, people view water first as a domestic issue, and only secondarily as a global problem mediated through the state. Pipes and delivery systems paid for by oil wealth may exist alongside nostalgia for old ways of retrieving water, while others may never think about water beyond their expectations when they turn on the tap. If those seeking to redefine access to water as a human right do not address the symbolic, individual and small-scale interactions that determine water use, the decision-makers they advise will, so to speak, miss the boat. Decisions about water must proceed from the ground up.

George R. Trumbull IV is assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College and an editor of Middle East Report. This is the third of three parts on the topic of water in the MENA region.

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