Pulitzer Center Update

Is Water A Human Right?

By Tyler Doyle

When Sarah Stuteville asked if anyone had heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she was met with 15 blank stares and 30 motionless hands. "Well," she said with a rueful smile, "the United Nations is considering adding water as a basic human right to the declaration."

Stuteville was part of a three-person team from Seattle that was sent to East Africa by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting . I was in one of several groups of students fortunate enough to hear their presentation titled "Water Wars," an in-depth look at the water crisis in East Africa.

We learned that, while Americans are worried about half-million-dollar spa trips and the rising cost of fuel, women in East Africa must hike for hours to get clean water for their families. Their pastoral way of life is affected by climate change as drought destroys pasture.

After the journalists talked, students hammered them with questions. "What can we do to help?" was the most prominent concern. Instead of condemning us as greedy Americans, Stuteville told us to use the immense power that we've been given (in not only money but in voice) to help.

So, how does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights fit in? Stuteville used the U.N.'s declaration as one example of the power to change. Drafted after World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt called her masterpiece "the Magna Carta of all men everywhere." The declaration includes rights to food, education and even social security, but water is mentioned nowhere. Perhaps water is implicit as "food" or maybe the 58 signing countries (including Ethiopia and Kenya) didn't see the need to add water as a basic human right in 1948.

Today, more than 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water. About 3.4 million people die annually from complications due to unclean water, but the No. 1 killer in the world still goes unnoticed. Amending the UDHR to include water as a human right would bring global attention to the water crisis. And one would hope that the 192 member states of the United Nations would feel pressure to be accountable to all of those without access to clean water.

The UN's Kyoto Protocol showed us that our world does have a conscience. Adopted in 1997 and ratified by 182 countries (with just one notable industrialized country absent), the protocol has shown progress in decreasing the carbon footprint.

Why not model a plan after the Kyoto Protocol to augment sewage control and access to clean water? East African governments will need an incentive, if their apathy thus far can be used as a gauge. Industrialized nations like our own, China, and Japan will have reasons to participate as well. East Africa is an investment waiting to happen.

Finally, why should the average citizen care? Water is a global resource, the water crisis is a global crisis, and we are global citizens.

See the article as it ran at St. Louis Beacon.org