Considering that access to clean water is necessary for human survival, it doesn’t seem like a controversial move to declare water a human right. Yet when faced with the prospect of making it international law, why is it that the United States was the one nation to have objections?
November marked the first time every country belonging to the United Nations agreed to make both clean drinking water and sanitation a human right, cementing it as international law. The victory, however, is somewhat marred by the United States’ move to lower the stakes of the proclamation.
Germany and Spain, chief sponsors of the resolution, wrote a detailed explanation of the human rights it hoped to guarantee: “The human right to safe drinking water and sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use and to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.”
Although every single country was prepared to cosign this declaration, the United States said it would not approve of “the expansive way this right has been articulated.” While the wording of the proclamation seems designed to prevent loopholes around providing adequate sanitation and clean water to people, the United States did not attempt to clarify in what way.
Unfortunately, given the nation’s clout, the United States’ unsubstantiated balk was all it took to convince Germany and Spain to remove the extra language so that it could receive unanimous support. The existing (forgive the pun) watered-down proclamation is certainly a start toward guaranteeing clean drinking water, but lacks the influence it would have carried had the United States not intervened.
Renowned human rights organization Amnesty International is especially critical of this power play. In an official statement, the organization calls on the U.S. government “to explain which of these aspects of the rights it cannot accept and why. It owes this explanation to the world at large, and to Americans, who deserve to know which aspects of their rights to water and sanitation their Federal government refuses to guarantee.” Additionally, Amnesty International points out that, despite being a developed nation, the United States has been previously called out by the United Nations for “not taking adequate steps to ensure quality, affordability, and access to water and sanitation.”
Another reason that the United States might want a less strict definition of clean water as a human right is that water wars are growing – not just internationally, but within the country itself. Experts foresee a growing number of battles for a limited supply of water, and the government may want to preserve its ability to take and allocate water as it chooses.
Fortunately, this one intrusion is not enough to prevent more substantial international laws to be made in the future. The United Nations will continue to meet to strengthen their resolutions on sanitation and clean water and – given the overwhelming international support – it is possible that amendments could be adopted even without the U.S.’s support.