According to a study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a human right to water entitles everyone to access to a sufficient, safe, physically accessible and affordable amount of safe drinking water for personal and domestic uses. This access should be prioritized over other water uses –notably water for agriculture and industry– so that there is sufficient water available for domestic use, to live a life with dignity, and such access should be non-discriminatory. Water supply beyond that essential use should be accessible to all other users, including agriculture and industry.
A rights-based approach to water means that priority should be given to those who do not have access and requires that individuals and communities have access to information, justice and participation in decision-making processes concerning water-related issues. Several experts have argued that access to free water is a legal entitlement for all humans, and therefore should be prioritized over other uses, including trading water as a commodity, or viewing the delivery of water as a service. Governments must ensure access to safe drinking water to people, and also ensure that companies do nothing to infringe on such access. While international law recognizes that states’ obligations to fulfill economic, social, and cultural rights depend on available resources, states have core minimum obligations which they must fulfill.
A separate human right to water has yet to be explicitly affirmed in international law, though access to safe drinking water is referred to in a range of international human rights instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the recently adopted Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and International Labor Organization Convention No. 161 of 1985 on Occupational Health Services.
The authors of this paper take the position that access to water is a human right, and explores what it would mean to apply to water the human rights framework developed by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie. In particular, the paper posits what would it mean to adhere to Ruggie’s “corporate responsibility to respect” principle in the context of access to water and what preventive and proactive due diligence measures businesses have to take to ensure that they meet the responsibility to respect. The discussion paper concludes with a broader assessment of what taking a rights-based approach to water would mean in practical terms for businesses.