Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Why proclaim access to water a fundamental human right?

Despite UN recognition of access ‘to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights,’ it is a right that is far from being realised in most parts of the world, writes Jacques Cambon.

On 29 July 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised, in a proposed resolution by Bolivia and adopted by 122 votes with 41 abstentions, ‘the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.’ The resolution also calls upon ‘states and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, in particular to developing countries’.

It was a historical decision. But what explains the need to proclaim this right is that it is barely respected around the world. According to the UNESCO/WHO 2010 report, 884 million people around the world (13 per cent of the world population), among whom 343 million are in Africa, do not have access to an ‘improved drinking water supply’ (running water network, public drinking fountains, protected wells or springs, rainwater tanks), and 2.6 billion people (39 per cent of the world population) do not have access to ‘improved sanitation systems’ (mains drainage, septic tanks, latrines). The consequences are tragic: To this day, water-borne diseases (diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, polio, meningitis, hepatitis, etc) are the main cause of death in the world, killing 8 million people a year according to the NGO Solidarites International (and about 3 million as stated by the World Health Organization). The culprits behind the ‘water crisis’ are numerous: Climate, demography, lifestyles, economy, politics, institutions, and the like. It is imperative that all are eliminated, so this ‘right to clean drinking water’ can at last become a reality.


The African climate is often considered the catalyst. While it is true that the world’s water is not distributed fairly, the effect of global warming will only accentuate the gaps by bringing more rain in polar, temperate and equatorial zones, and less in tropical ones. Moreover, human needs are spread out over twelve months, usually increasing during the dry season; however, supplies vary greatly during the year. Natural storage (glaciers, lakes, rivers, perennial water flows) is also more scarce in the tropical regions. Those disparities are nothing new, yet they haven’t precluded the development of adapted human societies on the world’s continents.

It is a different story with demography and globalisation of lifestyles. The world’s population rose from 2.5 billion in 1950 to almost 7 billion in 2010 while – it goes without saying – proportionally increasing its water needs. Because those needs add up to less than 10 per cent of water consumption, the list should include more than just domestic use (5 litres per day for survival, 50 litres per day for a decent life, more than 500 liters per day to satisfy North American standards). To accurately measure the impact of population growth on water needs, we should consider the total amount of water used for food, goods, energy production, and the like, which is called the water footprint. On average, this footprint reaches 3,400 litres per day worldwide, varying from 6,800 litres per day in the United States to 1,850 litres per day in Ethopia, while France uses about 5,140 litres per day. The water footprint depends on global consumption, lifestyle and climate. For example, knowing that the output of one kg of beef calls for 15,500 litres of water, one kg of chicken for 3,900 litres and one kg of wheat for 1,300 litres, it is possible to measure the impact that westernisation has had on consumption patterns.

Urbanisation is another key element of the water crisis. Though a fairly simple problem for small rural communities who make do with limited amounts of water, supplying this natural ressource becomes a much bigger problem as the community grows and diversifies its activities: In such cases, we need to look for further water repositories. The water they contain will need to be transported, stored, distributed among a zone too large to be supplied by only one water point, etc. All this is not free.

Nowadays, more than half the world’s population live in urban areas, which increases water conveyance and distribution needs, as well as the costs associated with storage, pumping, and potabilisation. This conurbation not only exacerbates purification and storm water drainage problems and their treatment, but also the ones associated with service management. Unlike small villages in which most of the time the community manages its water resources, water service management and purification (when the latter exists) is usually under the leadership of political powers, either the central government or municipal authorities.

In countries recently decolonised, where technical competence was scarce, those services have long been the responsibility of national utilities in the case of cities, and most often of the Department of Agriculture through a programme for water supply in rural areas. The achievements of these utilities is variable, but on the whole they have been, alas, quite poor. Numerous reasons, which too often mirror the country’s political and economic landscape, explain these failures: Unfit and corrupt leaders, lack of supervision, shortage of maintenance equipment, insufficient funding, penniless consumers. From these deficiencies, multinational water companies made a lot of profit, being able to say that better (private, of course) management of the water service would help put the situation back on its feet.


In the past, Africa has only marginally interested water multinationals, aside from the Ivory Coast’s water taken over by the Saur group, then owned by the Bouygues group, in 1960. In the early 1990s, the increasing intervention of two major international financial organisations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, forced developing countries to put in place structural adjustment policies: The only way to reduce the external debt was by decreasing public spending. Privatisation, including that of drinking water distribution, is at the heart of this system. In sub-Saharan Africa, Saur lead the way in Conakry (1989), Central African Republic (1993), Mali (1994), Senegal (1995), South Africa (1999) and Mozambique (1999). As the leader in the public works and civil engineering sector, Bouygues uses its influence as a water contractor (not always a lucrative endeavour) to be awarded, competition-free, the far more profitable renovation and expansion contracts. Veolia (former Vivendi) and Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux, which did not share the same interests, resisted a bit before following in Bouygues’ footsteps: South Africa (1992), Guinea-Bissau (1995), and Cameroon (2000) for Suez; Gabon (1997), Kenya (1999), Chad (2000), Burkina Faso (2001) and Niger (2001) for Vivendi. Some outsiders, not related to ‘Françafrique’, were also involved, among them Biwater in South Africa, or IPE (Portugal) in Mozambique or Cape Verde. In the more prized North Africa, while SONEDE Tunisia resisted privatisation, Morocco, on the other hand, gave Casablanca to Suez (1997), Rabat to a Lusitanian Spanish group for a short while before Veolia inherited it, the latter also getting Tangier and Tétouan (2002). Algeria, which was contemplating broadening the scope of privatisation, hesitated a bit longer before entrusting Alger to Société des Eaux et de l’Assainissement d’Alger (SEEAL) in 2006 (of which Suez is a shareholder), Oran to the Spanish Agbar Agua, and Annaba to the German Gelsenwasser (2007). Yet, Africa is a lightweight on the scale of multinationals’ profits: 8.5 per cent (total for Africa Middle East-India) of Veolia Eau’s sales figure (out of 12.5 billion euros), 7 per cent (total for Africa-Middle East) for Suez Environment (out of 12.3 billion euros), but 19 per cent for Saur (of 1.5 billion euros) in 2009.

One possible reason for such small numbers may lie in the poor achievements of these public services’ handovers. Almost always translating into a rate increase (up to 40 per cent in Nairobi) without improving the service, privatisations often anger users that are unable to pay any more and who form coalitions to force the government to cancel the contracts. Veolia had to get out of Mali, Gabon, Chad, Niger, and Nairobi, while Saur left Guinea. Movements against water privatisation spread here and there, particularly in South Africa, and movements of about forty other countries joined together in what is called the African Water Network during the World Social Forum held in Nairobi.

In fact, the privatisation model doesn’t answer Africa’s multiple water problems:

- The water resources being exploited are insufficient, potential new resources are scarce, remote, and expensive to develop.

- Actual production, purification and storing equipments are often run-down because of a chronic lack of technical and financial means to maintain them; therefore they need renovation.

- Distribution networks are in need of renovation and extensions, another costly endeavour.

- Purification networks (not including purification stations) are at best embryonic.

- Public corporations’ institutional flaws are just ‘the icing on the cake’.

In short, it’s pointless to add expertise (even if it is at a high-level) and to improve business management if installations remain in disrepair, a fact that calls for investments that municipal authories cannot make. Moreover, users’ buying power will not suffice to pay back a debt through an increased water price tag. And this picture doesn’t even include the need of multinational companies to release funds to satisfy their shareholders.


With a population of more than 3.3 million people, 60 per cent of whom live below the poverty line, Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya, and the capital of the Coast Region. It is Kenya’s first touristic destination as well as the main port of East Africa, where more than 10 million tons of merchandise transit annually. Fifty-two percent of the population have access to drinking water supplies, to which 16 per cent of them are directly connected, and 36 per cent get their water through public drinking fountains (PDF). The rest have to make do with water peddlers (whose costs can be as much as 10 per cent higher than the PDFs). The remote two major existing supply installations, 215 km for Mzima and 85 km for Marere, are in ruins (built respectively in 1950 and 1920): 60 per cent of the water is lost to leaks. The actual production capacity is 95,000 m3/d, but once we substract the supply to industries and hotels (a priority), only 26,000 m3/d remain for 52 per cent of the population (17 litres per day). The main consequences of this situation are the consumption of unsafe waters (wells, backwaters, water peddlers, etc) by the population, which brings inevitable sanitary and financial woes, limits to the development of economic activities (which in turn affect employment), and the priority given to production of water, which leads to a neglect of water purification, again with adverse consequences in termes of public health.

Renovating the existing infrastructure and increasing its capacity to 260,000 m3/d would cost about US$1 billion. With the World Bank’s terms of lending, a price increase to 50 Ksh/m3 (about US$0.60), from the actual 15 Ksh/m3 charged at drinking water fountains, would necessary to repay the loan, and this ‘arrangement’ doesn’t even include the cost of pumping (production), all of which would be financially unbearable for the population. What good would a DSP do in such a case?


The UN’s declaration making water a fundamental human right has not reduced the water multinationals’ expansionism. On the contrary, they applauded, considering that this new right would open new markets for them, paid by the states, but in reality funded by the people! Even though it won’t be possible anymore to claim, as did the European Union’s spokesperson Joe Hennan, that ‘water is a good like any other’, multinational companies will aim at using water to do ‘business as usual.’ To fight this, we can use the existing notion of ‘common heritage of humankind’ which thus far has been applied to the management of seas and oceans, planets, celestial bodies, etc. It includes the following four components:

Enforcement of a principle of non-appropriation by anyone
International management by the UN
Benefit sharing by all nations
Exclusively peaceful use of natural resources.

‘The battle goes on’ and the enemy is known: The World Water Council, the private sector-led international organisation which pretends to be the leading political forum for water issues at global level, although it was created and is still managed mostly by water mutinationals.


* Jacques Cambon
* Translated from French by Odile Leclerc
* This article is part of a special issue on water and water privatisation in Africa produced as a joint initiative of the Transnational Institute, Ritimo and Pambazuka News. This special issue is being published in English and in French.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.