NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 6, 2010

Bad water and bad sanitation kill 2.8 million people a year.  Three in four victims are children.  Reacting to this catastrophe, some philosophers argue that declaring clean water a human right would save lives.  Alas, solving problems is not as easy as that.  The connection between intention and result is tenuous, says David Zetland, an S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow in Natural Resource Economics & Political Economy at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Fifteen countries have amended their constitutions to include a human right to potable water.  What have they gained from this exercise?  Zetland compared citizens' "access to an improved water supply" (a U.N. definition) in these countries to access in similar countries without rights: 

  • With complete data for 12 countries, he found that access went from 74 percent of the population before rights to 81 percent in 2006.
  • In 12 comparable countries without water rights, access increased from 77 percent to 82 percent. 

In other words, rights do not necessarily lead to results, says Zetland. 

A quick glance at the water rights countries (Colombia, Ethiopia, Iran, Nigeria, Philippines and others) hints at the real problem:  These are developing countries with weak institutions, opaque politics and deep corruption.   It's naive to hope that a "right" will lead to flowing taps in a place where free speech gets you killed, police solicit bribes from victims and politicians give state assets to cronies, says Zetland. 

So how can we get adequate clean water if not through constitutional rights, asks Zetland? 

Consider the conventional wisdom that "water flows toward money."  Although it seems even less likely that we can give the poor money when we can't even give them water, there is one way to square the circle: Give the poor property rights in water they already own as citizens.  As Hernando de Soto might say, give life to their "dead capital" by turning it into tradable property rights. 

Source: David Zetland, "Water Rights and Human Rights," Forbes, April 12, 2010. 

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