The Price of Water

By · 06 November, 2018 · Blog

This article does not represent teachers or UN Youth Australia as a whole – this is simply an interpretation by one of our fantastic facilitators in hope to create ideas and increased dialogue surrounding this topic.

Water is vital for survival, however, inequalities in its availability and access are a constant source of conflict on community, state and international scales. Contrary to popular belief, the right to water has not yet been explicitly recognised as a self-standing human right in international treaties (United Nations, 2010). This is an issue I have found particularly interesting throughout the course of my university studies, as instead, the right is assumed implicit within a number of other explicit human rights (e.g. the the rights to life, adequate housing, education, food, health, work and cultural life) (United Nations, 2010). The right is typically defined by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ General Comment No. 15 as “the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses” (Dubreuil, 2006). These uses are usually defined as water for drinking, food preparation, personal sanitation, washing of clothes and personal and household hygiene (United Nations, 2010).

An interesting point of contention with regards to this definition is its use of the term ‘affordable’ when describing water- as many people believe it should be accessed for free (Bakker, 2013). This is a huge source of contention within the international system. While some argue that, since water is an increasingly scarce resource, the only way it can be managed properly is through pricing it at its full environmental cost, the concept is at odds with many cultural views around the world. Furthermore, many people around the world believe that since water is essential for human life, it should be able to be accessed for free. This pricing of water is often termed the ‘commodification of water’. However, according to the renowned economist Karl Polanyi, a commodity (something that is bought and sold) must have been produced for sale on the market (Polanyi, 1957). Despite water being bought, sold and having real supply and demand, it is produced by nature and therefore not for the purpose of selling. This suggests that water is a ‘fictitious commodity’, and can’t be completely commodified.

So what do you think? Should water be free? Is there a way to make this ‘affordability’ work for everyone? Let us know your thoughts!

-Kara, QLD

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