Paola Vega: Water Is a Basic Human Right

Costa Rican Legislative Assembly deputy Paola Vega on the pivotal role of water as a basic human right.
After nearly two decades of parliamentary debate, the legislative Assembly of Costa Rica recently approved the incorporation of the human right to water into its Political Constitution.
After nearly two decades of parliamentary debate, the legislative Assembly of Costa Rica recently approved the incorporation of the human right to water into its Political Constitution.

From now on, the highest legal framework will state that "Every person has the basic and undeniable human right of access to drinking water as a good that is essential for life. Water is a good of the Nation, crucial in protecting this human right. Its use, protection, sustainability, conservation and management will be governed by the provisions of the law that will be created for these purposes and the supply of drinking water for consumption by individuals and populations will be a priority".

This paragraph strengthens article 50 of the Constitution which, following the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, established guaranteeing a healthy and ecologically balanced environment as a State responsibility and promoted the development of a series of regulations aimed at improving the protection of natural resources within a framework of democratic sustainable development.

You might wonder why, in a nation with a proven track record in environmental matters, a debate on the greater protection of water resources takes twenty years. The answer is simple and directly linked to the constant obstruction that right-wing political forces, representatives of a selfish business sector, carried out for years to avoid stronger regulations on water at all costs.

For years, legislators from political parties, which were compromised by sectors interested in the privatization of water or the relaxation of regulations on its management, stopped the vote on this legal reform using the most absurd arguments. However, the previous elections left many of these political forces out of the political arena.This allowed us to finally conclude the discussions.

The importance of this constitutional amendment is wide ranging. Not only does it imply the recognition of the thousands of calls from the United Nations to develop public policies that force states to improve water distribution, but it also practically ensures a powerful legal instrument in environmental matters, not only in terms of resource distribution but also to guarantee the security of those who defend access to water.

Even for a country like Costa Rica with more than half of its territory covered by forest, a quarter of which under an environmental protection regime, the growing effects of climate change highlight the problem of social inequality.

Increasing climate change places us in a scenario where competition for natural resources will widen the inequality gap, making the already vulnerable even more vulnerable. This is when government intervention to provide equitable social distribution and to mitigate the consequences on sensitive populations becomes indispensable.

Water is a strategic resource in this equation. Without water there is no life nor human dignity. Without water, neither people's basic needs nor the production for a country's basic needs can be met. In Latin America, or rather the world, there is currently a painful link between poverty and lack of access to water resources affecting rural populations and women much more severely.

This is of vital importance. Talking about access to water necessarily implies an approach based on gender inequality, given that, for example, the average woman in Africa walks 6 kilometres a day to bring water to her home, or that a nursing mother's need for water is around 7.5 litres a day. It is not in vain that the “Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development” declared that women play a fundamental role in the supply, management and protection of water as one of its basic principles.

Dublin also emphasized the economic value of water in all its various competing uses. Far from implying that water should be viewed as a commodity, it has to do with the need for tariff structures that allow for the recovery of economic costs and the sanctioning of waste. But it also means ensuring that it is affordable, and so two fundamental debates are put on the table: preventing the privatisation of water and generating differentiated tariffs that are in line with the social divides of the population.

Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, liberal discourses that create false antagonisms and propose false solutions are strengthened more than ever. With more force than ever they establish non-existent disjunctions such as economic growth vs. environmental protection or labor rights vs. productive reactivation. They will have the welfare state and its redistributive policies in their sights and water will be a key element in this attack.

Faced with this, we have no choice but to raise the flag of a Green New Deal. A new social pact that tenaciously safeguards the elements of progressive governance we currently have; and understands once and for all that we can only have sustainable and fair economic growth in harmony with the environment. The great challenge is that these two elements should not be separated, that ecological conservation should generate distributed wealth, green jobs and social well-being.

In the Costa Rica that today guarantees the human right to water, anachronistic voices persist that make us slow to move towards that path. While some people are fighting for legal reforms that will steer the country towards a green and decarbonized economy, there is no lack of those dressed in clothes from another century who are clamoring to exploit oil. But, here as elsewhere, it would be foolish of us not to take advantage of this global crisis to do things right this time.

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Paola Vega
Tim Swillens

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