Water: a commodity or a human right?

“When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water.” — Benjamin Franklin

Twenty years ago, I was a newly minted U.S. Peace Corps volunteer embarking on what is still one of the most rewarding adventures of my life. Within days of arriving in Malawi—a small landlocked country in southern Africa, I was standing at the watering hole in the middle of a remote village contemplating how long it would take me to learn how to lift a 5-gallon bucket of water onto my head, balance it there, and then walk the half-mile back to my tiny mud house without spilling the water.

Turns out, it didn’t take me all that long to learn this skill. Water is life after all, and I needed water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and washing. And, that bucket wasn’t going to walk itself back to my little hut.

I lived in Malawi for 27 months. Ensuring that I had clean water was a daily task for me and the other women in my community. I regularly woke up thinking about water: Was the borehole working? Did I have enough water to make it for another day? Was cholera present in the area making it necessary to boil and filter my water?

Also, I only lived in Malawi for 27 months, so this daily meditation on water access was relatively short-lived. Before I lived in Malawi, I never gave much thought to the fact that I could just turn on a tap and clean water flowed freely. And, if I am honest, since I’ve returned from Malawi there have been very few days in which my main concern was where and how I could get access to clean water. (The privilege of my circumstances is the subject of a future blog post on environmental justice).

Today, as I watch the discussion around water in the western United States center on investing in water markets (think a stock market for water rights) and buying, selling, and leasing water rights on marketplace, I can’t help but wonder whether the United States’ collective push to commoditize water is misguided.

Water is a finite resource. Will commoditizing water price out our most vulnerable populations from accessing a resource that is necessary for life?

By 2010 the United Nations acknowledged “the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity,” defining the right to water as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. While the broader international community has recognized a human right to water, the United States has not.

But should the United States recognize water a human right?

After the Flint water crisis and reports of a megadrought in the western United States coupled with surging populations growth in western towns, is it time for the United States and western states to rethink whether they should consider water a human right instead of a commodity?