Over one billion people, out of the seven billion alive today, lack access to adequate clean water. This international water crisis coincides with (and perhaps encourages) the accelerating trend of commoditizing water, which many experts and rights advocates decry.
This essay will address the water crisis as a human rights issue by examining the effects of the privatization of water on people’s ability to exercise their rights. In so doing, it will show that the commoditization of water potentially challenges our human right to adequate clean water.
I. Clean water as a human right
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights implies that access to clean water is a human right. Article 25(1) states:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
A healthy standard of living obviously requires access to enough clean water for the individual’s or family’s well-being. Thus, we can safely assert that using and drinking clean, safe water is a human right, as outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as supported by other indicators of customary international law.
II. Commoditizing water
Historically, commoditizing water has made exercising that right more difficult. In 1999, for example, the privatization of the municipal water provider in Cochabamba, Bolivia forced minimum wage workers to spend a fifth of their income on water bills. The government finally abandoned its water privatization legislation after six months of strikes, protests, arrests, media censorship, and even killings. And “In South Africa, Johannesburg’s water supply was overtaken by Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux. Water soon became unsafe, inaccessible, and unaffordable. Thousands of people were disconnected and cholera infections became rampant.” 
This also shows that privatizing water is no guarantee of quality. This is as true of bottled water as it is of water sold by private utility corporations. A 1999 Natural Resources Defense Council study of 103 bottled water brands found that, on the whole, commoditized, bottled, “bacteria-free” water is no safer than regular tap water — and one-third of the brands included in the study contained arsenic and E. coli.
Those in favor of commoditizing water argue that privatization can benefit communities whose governments cannot adequately meet the need for clean water. According to a popular pro-privatization argument, governments that lack the infrastructure, the resources, or the logistical ability to provide enough clean water should allow — even encourage — private firms to step in and satisfy water demands.
These arguments for privatizing water hold some appeal, but upon inspection they prove insubstantial. First, as we have seen, there is no guarantee that the privatized water will itself be adequate or safe. Second, and more importantly, corporations are by nature apt to behave contrary to the consumer community’s best interests. Even though, as the pro-privatization argument correctly posits, corporations may in some cases be able to provide adequate access to clean water, we cannot rely on them to actually do so. This is simply because it is not their fundamental priority.
To prove this, we return to the greedy behavior of the privatized Servicio Municipal del Agua Potable y Alcantarillado (SEMAPA), which traded the economic well-being of the city of Cochabamba for corporate profit. In that case, turning the water market over to a private provider resulted in disaster — because that provider existed for profit, not for the benefit of the community. Being a corporation, their fundamental priority was profit, not community health.
The SEMAPA incident demonstrates a familiar fact of 21st century life: corporations exist to make money, not to benefit communities. Even when they supply water to communities that would otherwise go thirsty, they are not altruistic organizations. This means that privatizing water carries the serious danger of inviting motives that contest popular well-being and hinder the human right to clean water.
A common counterargument is that corporations are, in fact, profit-motivated to provide adequate access to clean water. Theoretically, competition with other providers should push them to sell the cheapest, cleanest water they can.
Unfortunately, empirical fact undermines this reasoning. Private utility firms often operate as local monopolies — Berlin, Barcelona, and the country of Chile, for example, get all their water from one private firm each — or under near-monopolistic circumstances, which cools competition. And because almost nobody has the time or capability to test their water for harmful components, corporations have little motivation to strive to supply the purest product — as evidenced by the findings of the Natural Resources Defense Council study referenced above. Further, the simple fact that nobody can simply forgo water, combined with the difficulty of switching water providers even when another provider is available, means that consumers can easily be stuck with a provider selling impure water, making them unable to threaten to take their business elsewhere.
Clearly, commoditizing water offers no guarantees against shortage or contamination. Worse, it risks challenging people’s ability to exercise their human right to adequate access to water. Therefore, as we move to combat international water crises, we must beware of commoditization. We must work to develop responses to these crises that more readily support, instead of threaten, human rights.
As a human rights issue, the commoditization of water is not as stark as, for instance, systematic torture or genocide. With that in mind, this essay does not seek to identify all private water merchants as the most heinous of offenders — its purpose is not to criminalize. Its purpose is to push us to find better, more efficient ways to give as many people as possible a fair chance at exercising their human right to clean water. More generally, therefore, it suggests that we strive for the most effective and efficient ways to further and protect all human rights.
Jake Comer (’13) is a co-founder of the BHRR
[Photo Courtesy of Flickr user Woodleywonderworks]
 A 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a 2004 World Health Organization/United Nations Children’s Fund estimate both put the figure at 1.1 billion.
 For instance, see the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Articles 11 and 12.
 Shiva, Vandana, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002), pp. 102-103.
 Ibid., p. 92.
 Ibid., p. 100.
 Ibid., p. 91.