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Yes We Can:
Why Obama Must Put Human Rights
First and Support the Right to Water
Fact Sheet • JULY 2010

F ormal recognition of the human right to water by the United Nations is a vital first
step to ensure that all people have access to this most basic human need. Yet the
United States government has historically opposed this movement. It is time for the
administration of Barack Obama to take a stand for human rights and throw its support
behind a U.N. resolution that codifies the human right to water.

Background: The Human Right to Water Nearly two billion people live in water-stressed areas and
three billion have no running water within a kilometer of
For more than a decade, water justice groups have been their homes. Every eight seconds a child dies of a water-
calling for legal recognition of the human right to water borne disease that would be preventable with access to safe
at the United Nations (UN) — as well as at national and water and adequate sanitation. According to a recent World
local levels — in order to ensure access to safe water for Bank report, by 2030, global demand for water will exceed
billions of people. supply by 40 percent.1

A UN declaration on the human right to water would give

all people equal access to “sufficient, safe, acceptable,
physically accessible and affordable water for personal and
domestic uses.”2 International norms set by UNICEF and
the World Health Organization define this as a 20 liter
daily minimum (5.2 gallons), increased to 50 liters per day
when including bathing and laundry needs.

Why is the Right to Water So Controversial?

In order to protect the quality of life and guide policies of
equality and social justice, the UN legally recognizes
certain inalienable rights; for example, the rights to food
and shelter.

Passing a UN resolution on the right to water would

establish the framework for valuing water in the context of
human, social and cultural rights, rather than as a commod-
ity. It would set an example for state governments to
replicate in national laws—a critical precedent for a world
facing population growth, climate change and a growing
middle class, all factors that strongly impact water usage.

No one should ever be denied water for basic living needs

because of an inability to pay. Without a formal recognition
of the right to water, it will continue to be treated as a
commodity to be bought, sold, and managed for private
gain instead of public good.
It is often incorrectly assumed that recognizing water as a
human right forces governments to provide free water to its
citizens or to the citizens of other countries.

Why Has the U.S. Government Not Supported

the Right to Water?
The U.S. has not supported the human right to water, and
has a history of voting against social and cultural rights
when they conflict with economic interests. The govern-
ment argues that General Comment 15, which provides
guidelines on the interpretation of the right to water under
Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, is not legally
binding and therefore does not constitute UN recognition Conclusion
of water as a human right.3
Without support from the U.S. government, the interna-
tional community is unlikely to reach a consensus on the
The U.S. stood alone in opposition to the Rights of Chil-
human right to water. President Obama, who was elected
dren4 and the Right to Development.5 Likewise, in the 2007
into office on the motto, “Change We Can Believe In,” has
vote on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,
the opportunity to be a human rights leader by swinging
143 Member States voted in favor, 11 abstained and four
his administration’s support behind a resolution. More and
— Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States —
more people are recognizing that water is not a commod-
voted against the text.6
ity, but rather a valuable engine for human development in
an increasingly water-stressed world.
At every World Water Forum — the largest global water
event held every three years — a ministerial resolution is
While the establishment of water as a human right is nec-
produced by consensus. The 2009 forum concluded with-
essary and critical, it is also insufficient in providing water
out consensus because of a language debate over inclusion
for all. Beyond formal recognition, countries must work
of the human right to water. Bolivia, Uruguay, Spain and
towards public water systems that are transparently and
several other countries lobbied strongly for inclusion, only
democratically managed and include citizen participation
to be blocked by the U.S., Canada, Egypt and Brazil.
at all levels of service.

U.S. Citizens Support the Right to Water There is absolutely enough water in the world to meet
In contrast to the anti-rights position of the U.S. govern- human requirements for health and safety. The only thing
ment in international forums, U.S. municipalities have missing is the collective political will.
begun enacting right to water resolutions at the local and
state level. In 2006, the Detroit City Council passed a
resolution declaring the right to water and preventing Endnotes
1 “Charting Our Water Future.” The Barilla Group, The Coca-Cola Company, The International
water shut-offs for low-income people.7 Numerous cities Finance Corporation, et al. 2009 at 6.
and states have passed laws preventing water shut-offs for 2 UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 15:
The Right to Water (Arts. 11 and 12 of the Covenant), 20 January 2003, E/C.12/2002/11,
low-income or elderly residents, particularly during paragraph 2.
winter months. 3

“Views of the United States of America on Human Rights and Access to Water.”
Submitted to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
June 2007 at 3.

Both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have explicitly 4 http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2008/gashc3941.doc.htm (paragraph 2)

recognized the right to water in their state constitutions. In 5 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Adopted by the General Assembly 13
September 2007. (A/RES/61/295) http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/en/declaration.html
2009, California passed a right to water bill that Governor http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2008/gashc3941.doc.htm (paragraph 2)
Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed. (document A/C.3/63/L.42/Rev.1)
6 http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/en/declaration.html
7 Detroit City Council proceedings record. March 1, 2006.
While municipalities and states in the U.S. are icreasingly
moving to pass resolutions recognizing the human right
to water, the federal government continues to block them
in global forums. It is time for the Obama Administration
to break from the unjust and narrow policies of previous For more information:
administrations and bring its policies into alignment with web: www.foodandwaterwatch.org
the American people. email: info@fwwatch.org
phone: (202) 683-2500 (DC) • (415) 293-9900 (CA)

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