The United Nations General Assembly voted yesterday in favor of an international human right to water -- something that activists have long been calling for and a few countries (most notably, South Africa) have already instituted. Asserting this unalienable human right, some argue, is the best way to ensure that all citizens, regardless of their location, economic situation, or anything else, have access to what is literally the world's most indispensable commodity.
I'm all for that. But a right to water is not something that can simply be drafted into law, poof! Unfortuantely, getting clean water to every human on the planet is a question of getting water markets and delivery systems up to snuff -- and if an universal human right to water was ever adopted, it could actually be a deterrant to that ever happening.
Bear with me, I am not a heartless westerner, I promise. Here's the conundrum: All humans need water. But companies, industries, governments, power plants, and nearly everything that creates economic wealth also requires water. And for those entities, water has an economic value. (Water also has an economic value to humans, the way food does.) And like all things that create economic value, we don't have an unlimited supply of water. That means that no matter what, there will limits about how much any one person or business can use.
Here's where the right complicates things. Rights to something like water usually imply that there is also no price -- and often no limits. This is the situation in much of the world today, actually -- and in much of the world, there isn't clean water to go around. Elsewhere where the price is too low, for example in the United States, commercial over-use is a real problem. In the U.S. case, underpriced water in the Western states, particularly California, has boosted agricultural use of water and discouraged conservation -- to the extent that the state faces an impending water crisis.
Countries that have dramatically improved access to clean water in recent years, on the other hand, include those who have put a pricetag on it -- Chile, for example, as well as Britain and Australia. Giving water a price (and certainly one that is bracketed by economic group, with different rates for private and commercial use) encourages conservation and smart use. Moreover, it gives private companies a real incentive to provide the stuff to more consumers. (In some communities, a push -- like a subsidy or a tax incentive -- would of course be needed.) In the end, all this will help bring more and more people onto the water grid. And that's what it's all about, right?
JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP/Getty Images