Claims and realities of implementing the human right to water – FAMA and WWF8

Consensus has been achieved that water and sanitation are human rights, but problems to realise these rights remain. Different views on how clean water and sanitation for all can be achieved impede progress for the most vulnerable and marginalised. Global and abstract debates sometimes seem far from local realities, but can have big impacts. Vice versa, local actions can change the global debate.

Every three years two World Water Forums take place to discuss global water issues and problems. This year in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, between 17 and 23 March and always around World Water Day 22 March. The “official” Forum – WWF 8 – is set up by private water companies, the “alternative” Forum – FAMA 2018 – is organized as a response by water justice activists to challenge the biased view of the corporations towards water. ‘Water justice’ does not only aspire that the human right to water and sanitation is fulfilled, but also that control over water sources must be in public hands as a collective right. Corporations claim that they can promote the human right to water and sanitation by selling water and managing water resources.


In 2013 the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) called “Right2Water” collected 1.9 million signatures and passed the threshold in 13 EU Member States. The ECI demanded the European Commission to implement the human right to water and sanitation in European legislation, following the United Nations General Assembly resolution of 2010 in which the human right to water and sanitation was recognised. The “Right2Water” campaign was organised by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and supported by a large number of NGOs, public water companies and water activists in Europe. It aimed to shift the focus of the European Commission from a market approach to rights-based approach in European water policy. With the slogan “water is a public good; not a commodity!” it urged that water services in Europe should not be liberalised. Trying to counter the support that “Right2Water” was gaining, the two big multinationals in water (Suez and Veolia) claimed that they were the ‘real’ promoters of the human right to water and sanitation and that “Right2water” was fuelled by a ‘German public lobby’. It could not stop the success of the ECI: Water services were excluded from the concession directive.

What is the problem with liberalisation and privatisation?

Creating a market undermines the objective of universal service provision. Market principles bear the risk of exclusion of the poor that cannot afford the new water price.  If in these cases governments would subsidize water supply to the poor, it would imply that the governments subsidize the profits of the corporation. The ’Cochabamba Water War’ is the most prominent example of a water conflict following from privatization of water services, but many more conflicts have risen over water in the past decades. Strong market failures provide an overwhelming justification for public regulation and ownership of assets. At the World Water Forum in Mexico City in 2006 private water companies issued a statement recognizing the right to water, but in 2012, at the World Water Forum in Marseille this statement appeared void when the private companies declared that it was ‘logic’ that people who had no money would get no water. If profit comes at first place, human rights obviously become a secondary concern. A human right to water does not imply that water should be for free, although this is at odds with cultural and religious views on water in many parts of the world. Moreover, drinking water is a non-substitutable resource, essential for life and a networked water supply is a natural monopoly that should not be in the hands of profit driven corporations.

Write “Water”, speak “Democracy”.

Strengthening the democratic, public character of water services is fundamentally at odds with the currently dominant neoliberal model, which subordinates ever more areas of life to the harsh logic of global markets. Claimed benefits of privatisation appear to be false in many cases. A study by the World Bank said: “there is no statistically significant difference between the efficiency performance of public and private operators in this sector”. Public-Private partnerships (PPPs) are increasingly controversial due to conflicts between the private sector’s commercial objectives and local developmental objectives. These conflicts have led to widespread social resistance. Lack of transparency over finance, service management and investment, is a motivation for public authorities to terminate PPP contracts. This is increasingly happening in large cities around the world. The case of Berlin is exemplary. PPPs, presented as form of cooperation appear to be privatisation in disguise.

The recognition of human rights to water and sanitation is forthcoming from long ongoing struggles for social and environmental justice. It is both a result (e.g. Uruguay, Bolivia) as well as a driver for these struggles (e.g. “Right2Water”, Indonesia). Although the human rights to water and sanitation are both being claimed by proponents of a social economy as well as by proponents of a free market economy, it is clear that the realization of these human rights is more advanced by social public policies. It is a support to citizens if they legally can claim their rights and it shows a government’s commitment when human rights are enshrined in constitution or regulation. A legal framework converts political intentions into enforceable rights and obligations, thereby moving the discourse ‘from one of charity to one of entitlement’.

Diverging world-views, different realities

The struggle for access to and control over water does not only take place at local level where services must be provided, but also at global and ‘meta’ level in the fight between the organisers of the World Water Forum (WWF) and the organisers of the Alternative World Water Forum (FAMA). Corporations dominate the debates at the World Water Forum, while activists that campaign for local and public control over “their” local water sources are campaigning at the alternative water forum. The diverging views (‘commodity’ vs. ‘commons’) make it hard to reach consensus on the much-needed global water architecture that should unify each and every organisation’s effort to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. A global water architecture should align all UN, global, regional, national and local institutions that work on water issues and aspire to achieve the SDGs, but this seems far away.

New forms of cooperation.

The resolutions of the UNGA in 2010 has not only encouraged states to increase their domestic efforts to realize the human rights to water and sanitation, they have also served to mobilise resources – above all in specific developed countries which cooperate with developing countries in the area of water. Good examples of solidarity that helps to realise the human rights to water and sanitation are shown in public-public partnerships (PUPs). These ‘alternatives’ for public-private contracts ensure equality of partners and focus on the poor and marginalised. Making progress to achieve universal, equitable access to clean water and sanitation – realizing these human rights – requires a socially just economic model. PUPs, as examples of solidarity cooperation, therefore merit more attention and support. By making a change at local level in public water services and resource management, they can help to shift the public economy from a neo-liberal model of competition – with a few winners and many losers – to a social model with not-for-profit collaboration and fair, shared prosperity for all.