Food and the Human Right to Water

Land is essential for food production, but it’s virtually worthless without water. This need for water helps to explain the recent global rush to acquire land:  as the non-profit GRAIN has pointed out, “behind every land grab is a water grab.”  And water grabs are serious. Already, one-third of the world’s population is affected by water scarcity, while over one billion people lack access to safe drinking water.

It’s an issue that will only intensify. Swedish researchers conducting model-based studies have determined that, if the world continues to follow Westernized, meat-heavy diets, “there will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected population in 2050.”  Unfortunately, it’s not very difficult to imagine a future in which food insecurity is even more widespread due to permanent water shortages.

What does international human rights law say about water?
Like the right to food, the right to water is grounded in international law; however, its history is distinct from that of the right to food. The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which codifies the right to an adequate standard of living, explicitly includes “adequate food” as part of that right, but does not specifically mention water. Thus, for a long time, the right to water was often seen as closely linked to other rights found in the ICESCR, such as the right to food or the right to health, but was not formally recognized in international law as emanating from the ICESCR. This began to change in 2002, when the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated that the right to water was “clearly” essential to an adequate standard of living. And although the right to water is not explicitly discussed in the ICESCR, three other major international treaties explicitly recognize the right:  the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006).

International law is constantly developing, however, and in 2010 the UN Human Rights Council affirmed that the right to safe drinking water and sanitation is indeed derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. This resolution occurred shortly after a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution on the right water and sanitation. The Human Rights Council’s move makes the right to water legally binding for governments that have ratified the ICESCR. As noted by the UN Independent Expert on human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, the right to water’s newly affirmed status “implies that it is justiciable and enforceable.”

Want to know more? Check back next week for a quick discussion of what the right to water encompasses, the relationship between the right to food and the right to water, and some suggested resources.

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