Righting Food Means Righting Water

Last week, I briefly sketched the origins of the right to water in international law. But what does the right to water encompass? And what is its relationship to the right to food?

The Right to Water: Freedoms and Entitlements
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“the Committee”) notes in General Comment Number 15 that the right to water provides “both freedoms and entitlements.” Under the right, water must be adequate; more specifically, it must be available, of acceptable quality, and accessible. The right must be enjoyed equally and without discrimination.

Governments with right-to-water obligations – for example, those that have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – must respect people’s existing rights to water, as well as protect those rights from third parties. Governments must also work to facilitate and promote the right to water. In certain cases, they may be required to provide water directly.

How does the right to water relate to the right to food?
The right to water and the right to food are intricately linked. In General Comment 15, the Committee acknowledged that sustainable access to water resources for agricultural is important for realizing the right to food. The Committee thus stated that governments should ensure that “disadvantaged and marginalized farmers, including women farmers, have equitable access to water and water management systems.” Moreover, governments must ensure that subsistence farmers and indigenous peoples enjoy adequate access to water.

Although not always talked about in tandem, the links between the rights to water and to food are easy to find. For example, in Accounting for Hunger, I noted that the beverage industry’s use of water to produce beverages in developing countries has depleted and contaminated groundwater, leading to reduced crop yields in nearby rural areas. The former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, even devoted part of a report to the linkages between the right to water and the right to food. As examples, he documented the lack of irrigation in rural Niger and poor regulation of drinking water in urban Niger; arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh that has found its way into the food system; and efforts to use water access to control populations in Brazil.

And these links between the right to water and the right to food may grow even closer in coming years. The looming global water scarcity will exacerbate problems of access to water and access to food. And when it does, using the internationally recognized right to food and right to water as tools for advocacy and accountability will be more important than ever.

Still curious about the right to water?

  • Visit the website of the UN Independent Expert on human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
  • Read the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights’s Fact Sheet on the Right to Water. (PDF)
  • Check out Woch Nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti, a 2008 report produced jointly by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU Law, Partners in Health, the RFK Center, and Zanmi Lasante. (PDF)
  • Of course, human rights law is not the only area of international law that discusses water. International humanitarian law and international watercourses law also address people’s access to water. Check here for a timeline of important international law developments regarding the right to water, or visit the International Water Law Project, which compiles information on international law and policy issues.

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