Mon | Aug 20, 2018

Rodje Malcolm | Water is a right

Published:Wednesday | November 29, 2017 | 12:00 AM

"Water is the new oil." Water scarcity threatens people's livelihoods across the globe. Countries are increasingly embroiled in conflict over access to water. Ballooning urban populations continue to deplete aquifers, and pollution endangers the quality of existing water supplies. We have long ignored this problem due to water's historical abundance. But unlike oil, water is not a commodity for trade - it is a human right.

Globally, clean, safe water is scarce. 783 million people have no reliable access to it - one in nine people. Worldwide, one out of every five deaths of children under five years old is due to a water-related disease. These problems persist because despite being equally important to all humans, water is not equally evenly distributed among them. The distribution of water is profoundly inequitable both among and within countries. For example, many rural communities have the least access to piped, clean water, and must still physically fetch water for domestic purposes, negatively impacting their productivity and social mobility.

Though we may not readily discuss it this way, water is a human right. This is because it is essential for most life functions and exists in a shared natural environment. Ensuring that everyone has access to safe and sufficient water is not charity, but the obligation of governments.


What does the right to water entail?


International human rights standards have evolved to now assure the right to "sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses." Many countries recognise the right to water in their constitutions. Jamaica does not. Notwithstanding that, here are some dimensions that we should protect.

Sufficient water: The human right to water requires that the water supply be able to sustain life and health, covering all essential personal and domestic functions such as drinking, food preparation, washing clothes and household hygiene. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this requires between 50-100 litres of water per person per day. In this context, the government's recent announcement to close the Cockpit Country to mining is both an environmental victory and a victory for the right to water, given that it supplies approximately 40 per cent of western Jamaica's water.

Safe water: The human right to water requires that water for personal and domestic uses must be healthy to consume - free from biological and chemical hazards like bacteria and pollutants. To assure water safety, governments must establish water quality standards and scientifically monitor all forms of water provision, including piped water, tankers, and protected wells to ensure they are safe.

However, Jamaica's water quality monitoring framework is weak. According to new research from the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), Jamaica has no legally enforceable drinking water standards because draft standards developed years ago have not been legislated. And while Jamaica does have standards for ambient water (natural bodies of water such as rivers), we do not actually test for all the pollutants in those standards, which defeats the purpose of setting standards.

JET also found that our sewage standards were frequently not enforced, and do not include common pollutants found in other jurisdictions. In fact, roughly half of sewage treatment plants did not meet legal standards, and large areas of Jamaican households remain unconnected to sewers.

Accessible water: The human right to water requires that water facilities be physically available and within safe reach for all sections of the population, including vulnerable groups such as the disabled and the elderly. But in Jamaica and across the world, where you live determines whether water is one pipe-turn or one mile away. Annually, Jamaica's Survey of Living Conditions confirms that rural communities have significantly less access to piped water than other areas and people must travel "longer distances to access drinking water." In 2012, 36 per cent of rural area households travelled "over 1,000 metres" for water. In 2017, the problem remains.

Addressing these problems will both enhance people's quality of life and boost national productivity. According to the WHO, for every $1 invested in water and sanitation, there is an economic return of between $3 and $34. Simply put, spending less time searching for water enables spending more time on productive activities.

We now have enough information to take tangible steps to address gaps in our water security and quality. Given the existential threat posed by climate change and water's increasing scarcity globally, there is no time like the present to act.

- Rodje Malcolm is a human-rights campaigner. Email feedback to