New Paper on The Human Right to Water

ScienceThe Human Right to Water: The Importance of Domestic and Productive Water Rights

Ralph P. Hall, Barbara Van Koppen, Emily Van Houweling

Science and Engineering Ethics


The United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights engenders important state commitments to respect, fulfill, and protect a broad range of socio-economic rights. In 2010, a milestone was reached when the UN General Assembly recognized the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. However, water plays an important role in realizing other human rights such as the right to food and livelihoods, and in realizing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. These broader water-related rights have been recognized but have not yet been operationalized. This paper unravels these broader water-related rights in a more holistic interpretation of existing international human rights law. By focusing on an emerging approach to water services provision—known as ‘domestic-plus’ services—the paper argues how this approach operationalizes a comprehensive range of socio-economic rights in rural and peri-urban areas. Domestic-plus services provide water for domestic and productive uses around homesteads, which challenges the widespread practice in the public sector of planning and designing water infrastructure for a single-use. Evidence is presented to show that people in rural communities are already using their water supplies planned for domestic uses to support a wide range of productive activities. Domestic-plus services recognize and plan for these multiple-uses, while respecting the priority for clean and safe drinking water. The paper concludes that domestic-plus services operationalize the obligation to progressively fulfill a comprehensive range of indivisible socio-economic rights in rural and peri-urban areas.

Download or Read Paper On-line

A Perspective on the Right to W&S

On July 17, 2012, I attended the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting and took part in a panel discussion with Salman M.A. Salman (former Lead Counsel, Legal Vice Presidency, World Bank) and Eric Tars (Director of Human Rights and Children’s Rights, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty) on the human right to water and sanitation. The panel was moderated by Benjamin Mason Meier (Assistant Professor of Global Health Policy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

In my presentation, I raised the question of whether focusing on the human right to “drinking water” could limit development opportunities for some peri-urban/rural communities. My remarks were positioned within the context of multiple-use water services, whereby water supply systems are designed to support both domestic and productive uses of water.

If you have an interest in the subject of the human right to water and sanitation, I encourage you to listen to a recent webinar on the “Implementation of the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation,” held on June 5, 2012.