Climate Change and the right to water

by |March 26, 2009

The Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, ended this past Sunday, March 22.  Held every three years, the Forum is organized by the World Water Council, an international multi-stakeholder platform designed to facilitate international cooperation on the management and use of water in an environmentally sustainable way.  The Forum ended with the Istanbul Ministerial Declaration, in which ministers from countries around the world recognize water as a basic human need, but not a human right.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 guarantees all people the “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”  Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”  The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which implements the Covenant, stated in its General Comment on the implementation of Article 12 that as part of the right to health, people need to have “access to safe and potable water and adequate sanitation.”

Climate change will impact the availability of safe water sources.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2007 report noted that while water availability may increase in some areas, hundreds of millions of people will be exposed to increased water stress as a result of climate change.  Adaptation and mitigation efforts to address climate change will, of course, aid in limiting the possible repercussions of climate change to safe access to potable water.  So what can a human rights perspective add to this?

Prior to the Forum, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) stated that:  “A rights-based approach to water would be a very important means for civil society to hold their governments accountable for ensuring access to an adequate quantity of good quality water as well as sanitation.”  A human rights perspective brings focus to the rights of individual persons, human rights are part of a moral framework recognized globally, and the international human rights framework is focused on holding accountable those who violate human rights.  Much of the discussion prior to Copenhagen is focused on adaptation and mitigation efforts within the common but differentiated responsibilities principle created by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The common but differentiated responsibilities principle ensures that the equity issues between the developed and developing world are incorporated into the next international climate change agreement, but this focus is limited to the national level.

Incorporating a human rights perspective can draw attention to marginalized individuals, located in every nation on the planet, and their rights that are threatened by climate change, putting a face on the human dimension of climate change.  In an era where the social welfare state is still a large part of our government, where human rights are globally recognized, and where social responsibility is becoming more of a buzz word, shouldn’t more attention be paid to the social cost of climate change at the individual level?

For more information on the Istanbul Ministerial Declaration, see World forum backs water as ‘basic need’.
For more information on human rights and climate change, see Climate Change and Human Rights:  A Rough Guide.

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Dennis Nißle
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Well we, as first-world citizens should really take care of all these problems. Great Article!