Water: A Basic Human Right

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In the narrative about human rights, healthcare, security food, shelter and similar issues tend to dominate. Conversely, despite being formally recognized as a basic human right, the right to clean water has still not received the attention it deserves. This is counterintuitive considering several of the rights that are connected to physical well-being are inextricably tied to water. For instance, good health and food are both impossible to achieve without access to clean water. In 2010, through the 64/292 resolution, water and sanitation were determined to be essential for people to realize their human rights, ending nearly 10 years of lobbying (Bellinger, 2016). Ironically, while most people will dismiss this as a “Third world” problem, it is in-fact a global challenge and some of the developed countries suffer from a deficiency of clean water same as the developing nations albeit often for different reasons. This paper examines the challenges that arise from a lack of clean water in three locations; Bangladesh, Flint Michigan, and South Africa which under normal circumstance are more likely to be juxtaposed than compared. In the same way, water is a basic need irrespective of where one comes from, the challenges that come with its inaccessibility or unsuitability for human use are universal and they cut across social cultural, geographical, and political spheres.

Bangladesh Arsenic Poisoning

The situation in Bangladesh is 70 years in the making and provides an astute case study on the law of unintended consequences. At the same time, it brings to the fore the importance of due diligence when it comes to interventions on water issues, especially when these may affect huge populations. Almost 40 years in the making, the current water crisis emerged from what had been heralded as a long-term solution to inadequate clean water in Bangladesh. A group of western bodies including the UN and World Bank provided funding for digging of thousands of tunnel wells in the Asian country (Buncombe, 2010). However, due diligence was not carried out and as a result, the water that was supplied to millions turned out to have been contaminated with arsenic. Consequently, the population has been plagued with a myriad of infections and medical conditions emerging from the exposure to the contaminants. In a submission against the British company that gave the water a clean bill of health, hundreds of Bangladesh residents who have been affected by this contend that if the water was in the UK, more care incisive research would have preceded such a declaration (Pepper, 2006). Ultimately, the contaminated water resulted in limited agricultural development and hundreds of cases of poor health and even fatalities. As a result, one can argue that by taking away accidentally or on purpose, a community's access to clean water, their rights to health and even life are jeopardized.

Flint Water Crisis

On the other side of the world in Flint Michigan, despite being a first-world country, there appears to be a lot of similarities regarding accessing clean water. The genesis of Flint's water crisis was the switch from Lake Huron to Flint river as the main source of household and industrial water (Mock, 2016). Like the case in Bangladesh, the initial plan was to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of water supply. However, it soon became evident that the new water source had serious biological and chemical contaminants forcing the state to increase the levels of chlorine and other treatment options (Bellinger, 2016). However, matters soon escalated and the community reported many cases of children suffering from mysterious rashes and other unexplained diseases that were however attributed to the water (Mock, 2016). While the direct fatalities are difficult to account for, thousands of Flint residents have suffered from health complications because of both the contaminants occurring in the water and the excessive and improper chemicals used as an intervention (Bellinger, 2016). Again, it is evident that when water is lacking, it is all but impossible to maintain human health and dignity irrespective of how progressive a society might be.

Cape Town Water Shortages

In the third case study, Cape Town, which is one of the most developed cities in Africa, has also been undergoing a water crisis of epic proportions (Well, First, Dignity, Out and Training, 2018). The city's poor urban planning and a series of droughts have turned clean water into a rare product that people must queue hours to fetch in small plastic containers (Taheri & Alizadeh, 2011). Rationing is introduced whenever the shortage gets too severe, and predictions are bleak as to the future of the city's water situation. Like in the previous examples, it is evident that the crisis, while partly caused by partly natural occurrences such as drought, is, to a large extent, man-made. Poor urban planning and global warming-caused climate change are both examples of how much damage humanity is doing to itself. Interestingly, when humans are deprived of their basic needs and rights, it is usually in human-made circumstances such as war, economic sanctions, and irresponsibility by governments and other people in charge. By this reasoning, it is self-evident that any scenario that results in a deficiency in water supply threatens the quality and even quantity of life across the board. The people in the three regions discussed are suffering greatly and without access to clean water, their well-being and health are compromised, and like other human rights abuses, there is a clear bias against minorities and "poor" peoples of the world. It is only when governments address the issue clean water with the same urgency and zest that is assigned to more conventional human rights such as security and life that the vulnerabilities surrounding it will be resolved.


While one may be tempted- as many publications have done in the past- lump poor countries in the same monolithic box where issues such as water shortages are normalized. These occurrences are frequent in the global narrative regarding not just water but many human right abuses. For example, in the past when there have been terrorist attacks in Europe, the western world has been very vocal in support and condemnation of the barbaric acts. This is contrasted with the benumbed responses to the same type of acts happening on a regular basis in parts of Syria, Nigeria, and Somalia. This analogy presents a very compelling foil for the water issue. However, even in Flint, the affected communities are mostly minorities who have a history of being sidelined when it comes to government support and quality services. It is no coincidence that when human rights are abused, it is usually in the less developed world or poorer sections of the developed world. Despite recognition by the UN, as mentioned earlier, it is apparent that clean water is still a right on paper but treated as a privilege in practice. Drawing inference from the scenarios and arguments presented above, there is a rather convincing argument that clean water is inextricable from a dignified and healthy human existence.


Bellinger, D. C. (2016). Lead contamination in Flint—an abject failure to protect public health.

New England Journal of Medicine, 374(12), 1101-1103.

Buncombe, A. (2010). How the West Poisoned Bangladesh. The Independent, 20.

Mock, B. (2016). Short Cuts Could Cause Permanent Damages. Upfront,11

Pepper, D. (2006). Bangladeshis poisoned by arsenic sue British organization.

Taheri, S. D., & Alizadeh, K. (2011). Water in crisis: paths to sustainable water use. EBNESINA,

14(1), 55-60.

Well, E., First, F., Dignity, P., it Out, W., & Training, C. B. (2018). When the taps run dry.

Nursing Standard, 7(25).

November 24, 2023




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