Science in Society Archive

Access to Water a Precarious Human Right

Unsustainable uses and privatisation of water are denying people access to safe water, which is their human right

Keynote speech on World Water Day by Director of Third World Network Chee Yokeling

I am originally from Malaysia, where a lot of my growing up was spent walking in the hills of the island of Penang, a beautiful and very important water catchment supplying over 40 % of the water for the entire island. So, listening to the music we heard just now reminds us where we come from: water is about flowing, free flowing and sustaining living nature and human beings. When we move away from the complexity and the organism of life and become engineers in the most reductionist form, we create nightmares. The flows stop with huge dams and irrigation canals that often do not help s,a;; farmers; and we begin to move water in vast volumes through engineering projects to feed into cities so big that they cannot be sustained, and everything ends up washed into the ocean as waste. Today we are also mining more and more of the groundwater, something that gets very little public attention and we are literally drying up the planet.

Having grown up on an island where water catchments were my weekend retreat, I now live in Beijing, which is a fascinating place. It has more than 2o million people in the middle of a very dry ecosystem and it is not sustainable. But throughout history, human beings have been on the move, we have settlements and cities, and we have development; and for a long time, we did not think too much about what kind of development would be sustainable in the long-term, within our life time and future generations. So now I do a lot of work trying to see if as human beings we can return to having an affinity with nature, how we want to organise our lives in society, how we want to do public transport, produce food, how to live closer to nature which means appropriate government policies and laws that actually respect the laws of nature. I now work for an NGO – the Third World Network - started by Malaysians in the mid-1980s.

When I was a student, I was already very attracted to this kind of work. We were working at a very local level with rural communities on the safety of food and other environmental problems. As a developing country that had a chance to perhaps do things differently, we asked ourselves: would we follow the path of Western Europe, North America, and Japan, or would we actually begin to look for different ways of doing development. 

In the early 1990s, there was that moment when governments got together, and I was very privileged to have had a chance to be a part of that process. Governments got together and there was a lot of pressure from citizens all over the world; people were protesting, from the Amazonia in Brazil to Sarawak in the Borneo Island of my country. Tropical forests were rapidly lost to construct cities and produce crates for transport of consumer goods all around the world and thrown away in a few years or a few months; indigenous communities, their lands, forests, and water resources were being destroyed; seeds were taken out of the farms into laboratories, turned into the ‘intellectual property’ of a few companies and sold back to farmers as manipulated seeds that don’t know how to live with nature and required lots of herbicides and pesticides; all of these issues many of us were working on in Asia, In Latin America, in Africa.

The clash of systems of thinking about how we wanted to develop our societies became very strong. So, the combination of citizen movements, protests, and the sense of injustice were a very big driving force that led governments in 1992 - and these were heads of states, presidents and prime ministers – to this huge conference of the United Nations on environment and development - The Earth Summit - in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There was a moment of acknowledgement that we were doing development in a very unsustainable manner. There was a political commitment at the highest level of governments that we would not do business as usual. We had this hope at the time of a sustainable development that would balance nature, social needs, and how we run our economy. But, as we know today, that hope did not become reality.

Underlying this whole thing of doing development sustainably is the issue of rights. I want to talk about the human right to water. In September 2010, after many, many years of debate, with citizens organised around networks demanding that everyone has a right to water, to safe drinking water and to sanitation; this right was recognised finally in the UN by all our governments.

And why did we have to have a demand for our right to water? Because water was becoming very precious, and it was becoming the private property of corporations, and the majority of people in many countries did not have access to safe drinking water, especially in the cities (see Box 1). There are people living in rural areas who depended on water in the environment for their livelihood, their lives; but the water was taken away from them, pumped into cities, into factories or into big commercial agricultural projects where the people who needed the water had no access, or the water became so polluted that clean water became extremely precious and out of reach. So, the demand for the human right to water is rooted in those who were denied this right, which is absolutely essential for our very survival.

Box 1

UN statistics on access to water

  • 783 million people do not have access to safe water
  • 2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation
  • 700 000 children die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation

And so we have a human right to water, but how does that become real in everyday life? I want to highlight some things that are actually threatening everything we are trying to talk about here. It is very special that today is a day that all governments around the world in the UN decided would be the international day of commemoration and thinking about water, (I’m not sure how many people are actually today thinking about water), and we also have a UN declaration for an International Decade for Action, ‘Water for Life’ (2005-2015).

There are so many decades for all kinds of things in the UN, and on the 9th year when we start having preparations for the 10th year, we realise we didn’t meet all the hopes and promises we set 10 years ago; this is quite common. We cannot leave things to politicians alone; citizens have been very active at the local level, the national level, and now they even have access to the UN, and many colleagues and I from different parts of the world, we try to go and make governments accountable at home and at all the places where they make big decisions.

It is not easy, because the human right to water and the right of nature to exist and sustain life is constantly being undermined by those who feel they have a right to make lots of profit. And so for many of us, this year and over the next three years, there will be moments where we can create opportunities at the UN, which has a charter that, if you remember, starts with the words “We the people”. We do own the UN, we do own governments because they are supposed to be serving people; and in the last 20-30 years we have all realised that the planet itself has got limits and is crying out loud that we cannot keep abusing it the way we have been doing. Global warming, the climate crisis is probably, in terms of ecology, the ultimate, where we have destroyed so much, polluted so much that the planet itself warms up and is at a tipping point. Science has been telling us this for years and years. It is very disturbing, but I want to give you this quote which shows that those who make lots of money from the destruction of nature are now looking at how they can make money from global warming and water is becoming very, very contested. This is from the chief operating officer of a New York hedge fund called the Water Asset Management (see Box 2): “Not enough people are thinking long-term of water as an asset that is worthy of ownership”. 

Box 2

Water Asset Management LLC

Water Asset Management LLC (WAM) was founded in 2005 and seeks to capitalize on positive investment opportunities in the global water sector. The firm believes that a dynamic investment approach across both public and private equity investments in the water sector can provide superior long term non correlated returns.


So today we find that the World Bank and many big corporations are looking at this essential life resource as a more and more precious asset through property rights. First you turn water into property, and then you can turn that into equity that you can trade, use it as an asset, for hedge funds, which then come in with the billions. In many countries from Canada to Bolivia, the privatisation of water has triggered enormous social unrest, resistance and protest.

Water is something so precious that it has to be in public custodianship of society as a whole. And we will see more of this contesting over water over the next few years, for even though we have the recognition of water as a human right, it is a human right also rooted in recognising that nature is not to be owned by anyone, and that human right is a human right for survival for the majority of people in the world already deprived of every resource. Today, the word of ‘rights’ is also very much used by man-made laws to give to corporations – intellectual property rights for companies of medicines and food and nature. We have the ‘rights’ of foreign investors today through private investment agreements signed by governments to directly sue a government. In the past, if any individual or a company feels that it has been wronged, you go to your government, and the government will take the complaint to the next government if it is a cross-border dispute. But today, corporations, through the use of investment and trade agreements, are making the governments of rich countries demand of the government of the weaker countries to agree to what we call “investor-to-state rights”. Many of us reject the term ‘rights’ to be used in this context. These are privileges, these may be monopolies, but they are not rights because rights only belong to humanity, and to nature.

To conclude, we are moving into an era where the contest over resources especially water, is going to be one of the most contested parts of our planet, and who has rights and who has obligations will need a lot of debate. It is very important for all of us to go to the local level, national level and international level, to demand that those real rights be brought back to nature and to its people.

Article first published 16/05/13

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There are 2 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Paul Carline Comment left 17th May 2013 06:06:11
Just wondering if you know about the right2water European Citizens' Initiative ( which has collected more than a million signatures across Europe for a submission to the European Commission.

Brian Sandle Comment left 17th May 2013 06:06:01
In the Third World there may still be communities who collectively hold land. Development economists may advise to capitalise the land so holders may borrow money on their holding and develop more directions. But it may often end in overseas corporations owning the land. The same is now happening with water in developed nations. Many humans like to compete but the sort of competition we do may not have outcomes happy for many people. If water is capitalised we would do well to think about the competition rules. Here is an article about redirecting competition for better outcomes in the health sector: And for those interested this 1890s book, until I can find more or better, gives "To capitalize land, to turn its value into the channels of trade, is to enrich this country beyond computation. It means enormous wealth to our commercial cities and prosperity to the cultivators of the soil." And of course we need to redirect competition in land rules, too.