New Working Paper: “The Human Right to Water and Common Ownership of the Earth”

March 8, 2013
by Jane Finn-Foley

At a time when politicians and advocates alike talk about a “right” to health care, a Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) professor is making the argument on behalf of a human right to water. In a new HKS Faculty Working Paper titled “The Human Right to Water and Common Ownership of the Earth,” Mathias Risse posits that humanity’s shared possession of our planet provides a philosophical foundation for a right to water and sanitation.

“Lawyers and social scientists have discussed whether international law generates such a right, what precisely it would mean, and what difference it could make,” Risse, a professor of philosophy and public policy, explains. “Philosophy comes late to this debate.”

In his paper, Risse notes that many countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East lack sufficient water resources and that this inadequate access to clean water not only poses health concerns but also hinders development and threatens security. With this in mind, Risse asserts that “there is genuinely a global responsibility for the distribution of water,” adding that “a human right to water … must have solid normative foundations.”

To ensure every person is afforded the right to water and sanitation, Risse argues for a global compact on water that would include a monitoring body to “take inventories of global water resources and assess how they contribute to the overall value for human purposes of regions of the earth.” This governing system would internationally monitor over- and under-use of water and would also address trans-boundary water distribution for agriculture and industrial purposes.

The monitoring body would also create a level playing field in which wealthier countries would not have power over poorer ones. “What should not matter for the resolution is how much water overall A or B possess, or their absolute wealth.” Risse writes. “What matters is how the overall value of resources and spaces is affected for whose assessment availability of water is but one (albeit increasingly important) factor.”

Such a global compact to guarantee access to all of the earth’s “co-owners” would move the perception of water away from that of a privilege to that of a human right. Risse concludes, “…we can no longer think of fresh water as abundant and thus a suitable illustration of what beneficence requires.”

Read the full working paper here.

Mathias Risse is Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy. He works mostly in social and political philosophy and in ethics. His primary research areas are contemporary political philosophy (in particular questions of international justice, distributive justice, and property) and decision theory (in particular, rationality and fairness in group decision making, an area sometimes called analytical social philosophy).

Mathias Risse

“There is genuinely a global responsibility for the distribution of water.”
—Mathias Risse

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