GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Water as a Human Right, Water as a Commodity


Water as a human right

The UN General Assembly recognized water and sanitation as basic human rights in July 2010. “The Resolution calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all” (UNDESA, 2014). The Millennium Development Goals as well as the Sustainable Development Goals also recognized the importance of water. Goal #6 states “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” (UNDP, 2015). 

However, does declaring water a human right ensure access for all? How is water to be made available to all? Is private water supply capable of providing affordable water access to everyone?
Read the debates around water as a human right and especially the idea that “the human right to water does not favor a particular economic model”:

From the 1980s onwards, criticisms of state managed water systems, especially the lack of consideration for environmental degradation and failure to ensure universal access, combined with increasing concerns of water scarcity and pollution, led to privatization of water supply systems in many cities, with the push of the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation. This resulted in increase in water prices in several cities and resulted in protests, famously at Cochabamba, Bolivia. However, the tide has turned against privatization in recent years, with around 180 cities and communities in 35 countries having placed their water system back in the hands of the public sector in the last decade (Vidal, 2015). 

In November 2018, the city of Baltimore recently became the first major city to ban privatization of its water and sewerage systems.

Instead new “public-public” partnerships are being conceived in places like Lagos, Nigeria which involve “cities partnering with non-profit organizations to keep prices low by taking advantage of the economies of scale and sidestepping many of the legal and corporate hurdles that accompany PPPs” (Vidal, 2015).

As Linton & Budds (2014) write “Recent work in political ecology has demonstrated the partial and contested nature of hydrologic data and has revealed how hydrologic concepts and studies are constructed according to particular views of nature and mobilized in line with vested interests. This emerging literature shows how hydrology – as an ‘orthodox’ science – is predicated upon ‘Western’ views of nature that reduce water to its material composition (H2O), the homogenization of different waters, and the characterization of hydrologic processes as ordered and universal” (p. 171).

Commodification of water

Commodification can be thought of as the processes by which objects are assigned monetary value for exchange on the market, with little consideration (or complete erasure) of their social and cultural value. Bakker (2014) makes a distinction between economic valuation, full-cost pricing and commodification. She defines economic valuation as “the process of calculating monetary values for environmental goods and services and incorporating this valuation into policy and management” (p. 481). This valuation is supposed to provide price signals for improving behavior and using water more efficiently. Bakker sees this evaluation as one part of full cost recovery, wherein “prices should reflect the full cost of infrastructure and maintenance and consumers pay for what they use” (p. 481). The full price recovery, with its technologies of measuring and billing, results in a different conception of water as an economic good rather than a public good. The commodification of water occurs only “when private property rights, full-cost pricing, and marketization (the introduction of water markets as trading mechanisms) are in place” (p. 482). While water proves a difficult resource to fully commodify, bottled water is an example of commodified water.

How much do you agree about the distinction between valuation and commodification?