Over the summer I may have been a little quiet as I took time with my family. A large part of wellbeing is taking time to connect with our families, and ourselves and for me, the school holiday period is a good time to do that. We spent a lot of time being by the water, whether that be the ocean or the rivulet. The ambiance of water – blue space – has therapeutic effects on human health and wellbeing. The time spent by water was a timely reminder that we are connected to the liquid stuff in more ways than we realise.
Our blue planet is a testament to the integral role of water to every living being on earth. Access to water not only satisfies our basic needs but our psychological needs too. Our need for water can be categorised by Manfreed Max-Neef’s nine axiological needs for Human-Scale Development, that is: subsistence, protection, participation, identity, idleness, creation, and even affection, understanding and freedom; but which also corresponds to Maslow’s psychological needs mirrored in his Hierarchy of Needs such as the need for leisure time, culture and community. Oftentimes, water is only equated to the need for subsistence or survival.
Water is a communal concept. The only thing individual about water is the way its presence makes us feel, subjectively. Yet, even that has objective consequences because, numerous studies show that being connected to nature, particularly water, makes people feel part of something bigger than themselves, imparting a feeling of awe and transcendence. This feeling of being connected to something bigger helps develop the responsibility to protect the environment around us.
Given the overwhelming importance of water to life on earth, the principle of reciprocity is especially crucial. In other words, being cognizant of the society-nature continuum and conscious of the fact that what we take, we must also give back. The Socio-Eco Wellbeing that results from Buen Vivir, confirms transcendent values like our deep connection to water, highlighting the importance not only of human wellbeing but also environmental wellbeing.
The United Nations resolution 64/292 calling for access to safe water to be considered as a human right was passed in 2010 with the support of 122 countries. It states that “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” (UN CESC – General Comment 15, paragraph 2).
Although no one can deny the necessity of water as human, and the need for everyone, everywhere to be able to access clean, safe water, it has been argued that making it a human right only reinforces the mentality of human’s dominance over nature – that we must control it as a means to ensuring our own survival and livelihood, cementing if you like, the idea of water being a commodity. It should not be. Rather, it should be understood as an essential part of the earth’s lifecycle, of which we are also a part.
Our modern-day commodity-like dependence on water leads to pollution, drought, water scarcity, and consequently diseases and food insecurity. Notwithstanding our absolute need for clean, fresh water; shifting mindsets from water as a human right to the responsibility of humans to ensure the health and sustainability of water sources can help ensure the former. Of course, this would not be equitable without re-examining the structural causes as to why many communities go without safe drinking water, and sacred water environments destroyed, polluted, or even seized.
In neoliberal development, human rights and environmental protection are often in conflict with each other. In 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council affirmed that the human right to water is legally binding upon states. To guarantee water as a human right means first addressing the structural and systemic road bumps that see the misuse, overuse, and exploitation of water and water sources. A large part of this is due to industry consumption. Particularly in communities in the Global South which have had multinationals and/or governments misuse and pollute local water sources for production’s sake. Watercourses are protected internationally by the “no-harm” principle in international law. That may help with seeking reparations, but there is nothing concrete to prevent harm being done in the first place.
Harms to water sources create water stress, not only for humans but also for all living ecosystems that rely upon water for survival. The consequences are dire and cyclical. It affects food systems, livelihoods, even reactional activities. In short, it affects both human and ecological wellbeing and threatens our ability to satisfy both basic and psychological needs.
So, let’s put a spin on this. If we viewed water not as a right, but as a guarantor of both human and ecological wellbeing that must be protected and cared for to be utilized, would that change anything? Should it then not just be a question of society’s needs, but environmental ones too? The first step might be to also ask: what does water need to ensure its continual and safe replenishment?
Personifying ecological resources, for example, is a practice and worldview taken by Indigenous Peoples for generations, and it may help better ensure sustainability by changing the way we look at our natural resources. This practice has been ratified in law in a handful of cases where local jurisdictions uphold the Rights of the Nature, such as the constitutional amendments in Ecuador which recognise such rights, or the treaty ratified in New Zealand with the Māori iwi recognising the Whanganui River as a legal entity.
Complementing the right of water should therefore be the application of environmental personhood – providing water itself rights to exist and survive in good health. These two ideas need to harmonize each other because, without water, there is no life – human or otherwise. On the contrary, without humans, water will continue to flow and perhaps thrive, without the threats of overuse and pollution. Unfortunately, we humans cannot say the same about water.