October 2014        

Water is a human right

Kathleen Lynch

Water is life, and life is water

Next to oxygen, water is the most essential element required for human existence. Two-thirds of the human body consists of water. While we need many nutrients to sustain us in life, we will die within days without water. Water is more than H₂O: it is integral to human life itself.
      Water is vital for the operation of multiple metabolic processes within the human body, and we need it more immediately and urgently than other nutrients to survive. Water is not only needed for drinking: it is vital for the maintenance of health through its usage in sanitation and the management of human bodily waste.
      Most of the personal usage of water goes in the management of excretions from the body and in cleansing the body and its effects, including clothing, cooking and eating utensils, etc. Having access to water is not only essential for life itself, it is essential for our health.
      The International Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC) defended the right to water in 2002, declaring in its General Comment 15 that “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”
      In 2010 the UN General Assembly recognised the right to water and sanitation. And in 2010 the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution acknowledging that both rights (i.e. the right to water and to sanitation) are implied by the right to an adequate standard of living.

Water is a public collective good

The existence of water is not owed to any human accomplishment.¹ Humans do not create water. If it stopped raining and if our rivers and springs (and seas) ran dry, we could not produce water ourselves. While the state (through Irish Water) may claim ownership of the network that delivers water, neither Irish Water nor the state produces water. Water is a given from nature and is a collective good that is collectively owned.
      Humanity collectively owns the earth, in the sense that no individual or group produced the earth, so it is collectively owned. Water is produced by the earth and in that sense it is not owned by persons or institutions. It is a public good that cannot and should not be commodified, commercialised, or privatised.
      And it is the duty of the state to protect people’s right to safe, secure, accessible, affordable water. What is a public good cannot and must not be turned into an investment (profit-making) opportunity for multinational corporations.
      Yet the introduction of a market relationship in the delivery of water in Ireland is a step in the direction of privatisation and commercialisation. It redefines water from being a public good, provided and protected through general taxation, to being a personal service that can be removed if one is unable to pay. It represents the first step in diminishing a person’s human right to water.

The EU and the privatisation of water

What many Irish people do not know is that the commercialisation of water is very much part of European Commission policy. The Concession Directive states that “the market for water supply should be opened up.” This is a clear statement of intent to commercialise water and undermine people’s human rights to its usage.
      Moreover, under the bail-out programme set up by the Troika in Portugal, the commercialisation of the water supply was a requirement. Similar demands were made for commercialising water supplies in Athens and Thessaloníki in Greece. If the ECB and IMF can force Portugal and Greece to hand over water to commercial interests, what is to stop them making it happen in Ireland at some future time? Indeed what is to stop the Irish Government from selling off Irish Water as a revenue-making option?
      The privatisation of water has happened already in England, where most water is owned and delivered commercially. In France as well some 70 per cent of the water supplied is commercially owned. However, it is interesting that the city of Paris remunicipalised its water supply (returned it to public ownership and control) in 2008 because of rising costs from commercial operators. The cost of water had increased in real terms by 265 per cent over a 23-year period, from 1985 to 2008. In the first year of remunicipalisation the city council of Paris itself saved approximately €35 million in water charges, and the overall costs of water were reduced by 8 per cent for householders. Buenos Aires and Kuala Lumpur are also major cities that have remunicipalised their water supplies because of the rising costs of water with commercialisation.
      The Cochabamba Declaration (in Bolivia) in the late 1990s was made as a result of the privatising and subsequent remunicipalisation of water because of the rising costs after privatisation in that city of almost 2 million people. It declared that “water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government. Therefore, it should not be commodified, privatised or traded for commercial purposes.”

Water taxes are indirect taxes—deeply unjust

A tax on water is an indirect tax. It is deeply inegalitarian and unjust, because it has to be paid regardless of income or capability, and because it is a tax on a “good” that people must use to maintain life itself. It is a tax that people cannot avoid.
      While those who are on low incomes can avoid some indirect taxes (such as alcohol or tobacco), they cannot avoid using water, as they need it to live. Moreover, as a certain quantity of water is necessary for consumption and sanitation, it is not possible to radically reduce your consumption. Indeed if you are at home a great deal (unemployed, elderly, or ill) it will cost you more than if you have a job, or can afford to go to the gym or sports club, etc., where you can use sanitation and shower facilities.
      Water taxes are also unjust as they are a form of taxation that disproportionately affects those with the lowest income. Recent research, based on CSO data,² shows that the lowest income group in Ireland (the lowest 10 per cent) spend 28 per cent of their entire income on taxation, almost all of it on indirect taxes. This is only 1 per cent less than the richest 10 per cent, who spend 29 per cent of their income on taxes—mostly in direct taxation in their case.
      So, no other social group spends as much of their income on taxation as the lowest income group, apart from the top income group. This is mainly due to the extensive use of indirect taxes to collect taxes from the poorest people in Irish society.
      Water charges are indirect taxes that will further propel the poorest into greater poverty. They are not just an attack on those on low incomes, however: the introduction of the individualisation of payment, through a market relationship with a provider, compromises every citizen’s right to water. Your individual ability to pay is what determines your right.
      There is a need to set up a National Water Monitoring Body to oversee the protection of water as a human right in Ireland. Without an independent, non-commercial, non-party-political oversight body there is a very real danger that the human right to water in Ireland will be reneged upon in a few years, or whenever the next financial crisis arises.

     1. Mathias Risse, “The human right to water and common ownership of the earth,” Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 22 (2014), issue 22, p. 196.
     2. Micheál L. Collins, “Total Direct and Indirect Tax Contributions of Households in Ireland,” Nevin Research Institute, Dublin (NERI WP 2014/No. 18), p. 17.

■ Prof. Kathleen Lynch is head of UCD School of Social Justice.

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