The Right to Water

The Right to Water
April 19, 2016 Guest

Today’s contributor, Mary Henneberry, is a master’s student at Brandeis University studying Sustainable International Development. She is currently taking a course on human rights and water, and we are so happy to have her share her knowledge and passion for this issue on our blog! 


I came across the poem How Many, How Much from Shel Silverstein’s book, A Light in the Attic, the other day after a class on human rights and water. I was still reflecting on what we discussed in class – particularly in relation to who defines how much water is sufficient or enough for an individual – when I read it, so I decided that the poem needed an additional stanza:


How Many, How Much

How many slams in an old screen door?

Depends how loud you shut it.

How many slices in a bread?

Depends how thin you cut it.

[How much water does one need?

Depends for what you use it!]

How much good inside a day?

Depends how good you live ‘em.

How much love inside a friend?

Depends how much you give ‘em.


To me, this is an important concept – one important for understanding rights – because I use water for different things, and in different amounts, each and every day. Some weeks I do three loads of laundry, other weeks I don’t quite get to one. Some days I work out and drink the recommended 64+ oz. of water. Other days, I go out for tacos and margaritas rather than the gym. Some days, I drink 6 cups of coffee (and go to the bathroom twice as much), and on rare days I only have one. All of those things – from drinking to washing to flushing – require water, and in different amounts. Thus, the amount of water one needs really does depend on how you use it!


In general, those in the United Nations and national governments consistently argue and debate over a reasonable minimum, so many documents simply state that people have a right to water, but do not go so far as to say how much.


However, what they do realize, and what may be even more crucial, is the fact that, “The human right to water* is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” (United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 15, Article 1)


The right to water is essential for life, human dignity, and is absolutely necessary in order to meet other needs. YES. Absolutely. How different would your life be if water did not come to your house, or if the amount that did come stopped once you reached your allowance?


I fell into water* – water and sanitation access and issues – when I realized you don’t know what you got ‘till it’s gone. It is more common to care about and fight for rights only when you don’t have them or even worse, when they are challenged or taken away.*


Growing up in the United States, I never thought about where water came from or what would happen if I went to turn on the sink and nothing came out. It always came out: consistently (easily accessible), cleanly (safe quality), and copiously (availability). That is a rare thing in this world!


When I moved to the Dominican Republic to teach, the house I lived in only received water on Wednesdays (about 97% of the time). We had plumbing, but it was not consistent and only worked on Wednesdays. When it did come out, it was not potable (we had to buy separate drinking water), and not copious. It lasted us until the next week, but by the time the next Wednesday came, we definitely needed to refill our barrels! The thing was, when necessary, we could always find a way to afford drinking water for regular use, if water did not come that week. The majority of our neighbors did not have this option.


One day on the way to school, women in the neighboring community were standing in the road blocking traffic at a busy intersection, demanding the right to water for their families. Their community had not gotten water in weeks. Not only was this affecting their ability to care for their homes, but it was affecting their ability to feed, bathe, and clothe their children. Without water, their families were suffering.


Despite attempts to tell the government they had not received it, the government was not listening. Buying drinking water for other uses was not financially possible. So, these women staged a blockade to call attention to the fact that their children needed water. That was what they were saying as we tried to pass: Our children need water.


The government listened and they received water for that day, but afterwards there was an 8 day lapse before they received it again. And so they continue to fight for water.


People, especially mothers, should not have to take such measures in order to have access to water for themselves and their families. However, the reality of many in the world is just that: they fight for the right, they struggle for water. They are the ones who need to consciously think about safe, accessible, and available water. They are most often the ones staying home on Wednesdays, for instance, filling up barrels with water.


They are the ones continually wondering: How many days until more water? How many more people need it to bathe? How many more days can I wait to wash clothes in the hopes more water will come? How much water is left? How much can I cook with what I have left?


How much more do we have to fight before we too have a right to water?

We’re on a mission to end the global water crisis. We build holistic clean water solutions and spread God’s love in at-risk communities around the world, empowering people not just to survive, but to thrive – physically, socially and spiritually.



*I think it is important to note that the human right to water does not mean it is free – but that it is available, accessible (physically and economically), and of safe quality. If you are interested, you can read the General Comment 15 itself here.

*Not literally (recently, at least – I don’t deny it has never happened).

*The recent case of Flint, Michigan highlights this. Another example you can Google is the ‘water wars’ in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

*A different example of this can be seen in the videos (1-5) about a case in South Africa on water limits. Part 1 starts here and you can find Parts 2-5 afterwards or on the sidebar.