David Zetland

David Zetland

3/25/2010 @ 10:00AM

Water Rights and Human Rights

Bad water and bad sanitation kill 2.8 million people a year. Three in four victims are children. Reacting to this catastrophe, some philosophers argue that declaring clean water a human right would save lives. Alas, solving problems is not as easy as that. The connection between intention and result is tenuous.

Seventeen countries have amended their constitutions to include a human right to potable water. What have they gained from this exercise?

I compared citizens’ “access to an improved water supply” (a UN definition) in these countries to access in similar countries without rights. With complete data for 12 countries, I found that access went from 74% of the population before rights to 81% in 2006. In 12 comparable countries without water rights, access increased from 77% to 82%. In other words, rights do not necessarily lead to results.

A quick glance at the water rights countries (Colombia, Ethiopia, Iran, Nigeria, Philippines and others) hints at the real problem: These are developing countries with weak institutions, opaque politics and deep corruption. It’s naive to hope that a “right” will lead to flowing taps in a place where free speech gets you killed, police solicit bribes from victims and politicians give state assets to cronies.

So how can we get adequate clean water if not through constitutional rights?

Consider the conventional wisdom that “water flows toward money.” Although it seems even less likely that we can give the poor money when we can’t even give them water, there is one way to square the circle: Give the poor the property rights in water they already own as citizens. As Hernando de Soto might say, give life to their “dead capital” by turning it into a tradable property right.

This idea raises many questions, but let’s consider three important points.

First, water in many nations is owned by the people. The state, at least in theory, distributes the right to use water in such a way that its social value is maximized. For most of history we owners have not paid attention to how our water was used, but now scarcity has piqued our interest and passion. In the developed world we want to know that our water goes to environmental protection or food production; in the developing world we want our water to slake our thirst. (This is the recent lesson that the citizens of Haiti received: When disaster struck, their water was not there. It was already gone; their corrupt rulers had given it to cronies.) So I am neither proposing new property rights nor taking rights from owners; I propose that rights be distributed to their owners and taken from the politicians and bureaucrats who currently (mis)manage it.

Second, it is quite possible for city dwellers as well as farmers to have a “share” of water. All owners could sell their water to those who want more. Selling water raises another objection, that people will sell their water and die of thirst. We can address this concern by dividing rights into inalienable “need” rights that cannot be traded and “want” rights that can be. The “want” water shares would vary with supply and the population. Tradable rights could be rented but not sold–protecting owners from sharp dealing and communities from drying out.


If we use a conservative figure of 36 gallons a day for one person’s “need” water, then Americans would have on average 7,300 gallons a day of tradable water left. For comparison, note that per capita municipal and industrial consumption in southern California ranges from 100 to 330 gallons a day. Trade water numbers would be 130 gallons a day in water-scarce Israel and 1,100 in Haiti.

Finally, consider the positive impacts on equity, governance and efficiency. Citizens will care how their water (and all water) is managed, keeping a sharp eye on bureaucrats and brokers, looking for ways to increase their wealth, reducing trading costs and improving management in all water sectors. People everywhere know the difference between a competitive drinks business and a tap-water monopolist; markets with numerous buyers and sellers competing on price and value will replace bureaucrats and politicians delivering water to special interests and monopolists. Markets increase transparency and improve efficiency. Even better, they would generate income for sellers, allowing them to buy safe drinking water.

Don’t give the poor some vague, unenforceable human right to water. Give them their water and let them prosper from it.

David Zetland is an S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow in Natural Resource Economics and Political Economy at UC, Berkeley.

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