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Un bambino del campo profughi Dakhla in Algeria riempie una tanica d'acqua da un pozzo, 2003
© UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The right to water

Water is the essential resource for life and every human being has the right to access to water necessary for his/her basic needs. Nevertheless, the international human rights law, surprisingly, is silent on the existence of a specific right to water. To fill this gap the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), in its General Comment on the Right to Water, has affirmed that the right to water should be considered as included among the conditions to secure adequate standards of living and the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health to which everyone is entitled to, respectively according to Article 11.1 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). It is not imaginable a human rights system not contemplating the right to water. It has been recognised, in fact, "the prerequisite for the realization of other human rights" and "indispensable for leading a life in human dignity". The CESCR goes on defining the right to water as follows:

"[t]he human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease and to provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements."

This interpretation provided by CESCR makes arise obligations upon States parties to ICESCR in relation to the right to water. In particular States shall guarantee the exercise of that right without discrimination of any kind and shall take steps towards its full realization, progressively but using the maximum of their available resources, in accordance with the general obligations established by Article 2.1-2 of the Covenant. The CESCR, whereas recognises the right to water for everyone, underlines that some groups deserve particular protection in virtue of the principle of non discrimination; among these groups it identifies the indigenous peoples. In particular States shall provide measure to ensure that "[i]ndigenous peoples' access to water resources on their ancestral lands is protected from encroachment and unlawful pollution. States should provide resources for indigenous peoples to design, deliver and control their access to water."

As the protection of every human right imposes, States have three types of obligations: to respect, to protect and to fulfil. The obligation to respect bounds States to refrain "from engaging in any practice or activity that denies or limits equal access to adequate water; arbitrarily interfering with customary or traditional arrangements for water allocation; unlawfully diminishing or polluting water...". States have not the right to undertake an activity for whatever scope when it is likely to interfere with the enjoyment of the right to water. The obligation to protect refers to the task of preventing adverse effects coming from the activities of third parties such as companies by "adopting the necessary and effective legislative and other measures to restrain...them from denying equal access to adequate water; and polluting and inequitably extracting from water resources, including natural sources, wells and other water distribution systems." Finally in order to fulfil their obligations States are required "to adopt the necessary measures directed towards the full realization of the right to water", and among them: "according sufficient recognition of this right within the national political and legal systems...ensuring that water is affordable for everyone; and facilitating improved and sustainable access to water, particularly in rural and deprived urban areas." The availability and the access of water are essential in the realisation of the right to water that every States have to guarantee them with all their available instruments. It is important to note that the essential importance of this right as other human rights requires not only the commitment of States toward its citizens but of all States together toward all citizens of the world, according to a common responsibility that States share in ensuring that no action affect the enjoyment of the right to water. The shared responsibility implies, inter alia, that States should prevent their citizens to violate this right in other countries and "should ensure that the right to water is given due attention in international agreements" and finally: "States parties should ensure that their actions as members of international organizations take due account of the right to water. Accordingly, States parties that are members of international financial institutions...should take steps to ensure that the right to water is taken into account in their lending policies, credit agreements and other international measures."

These dispositions try to build a framework of protection against all abuses can derive from different categories of States' actions including when they act through international organisations, as for example the EU. Even the case in which a State fails "to take into account its international legal obligations regarding the right to water when entering into agreements with other States or with international organizations" represents a violation of the right to water.