Water Rights

What is it?

It’s an undeniable fact that humans cannot live without water. So, you would think that free, universal access to fresh, potable water should be a basic human right. Not true. Water rights are an individual or group’s legal entitlement to divert or use water from a specific source. In nearly every country, including the United States, there are different types of water rights, which are regulated by governments and vary depending upon geographic location. Water is used for all sorts of purposes, including household, farm, and industrial uses, all of which place great strain on earth’s groundwater and surface water (water found in rivers, lakes, and streams) supplies.


What’s wrong?

Across much of the world, access to clean, unspoiled drinking water is not a reality for all. In some places, water is becoming increasingly scarce, as droughts, land degradation, desertification, floods and climate change as a whole mean dwindling freshwater supplies for people to drink. 

In addition, the increasing industrialization of today’s society means that water supplies across the globe are being tainted with toxins, chemicals, and other hazardous materials from stormwater runoff, wastewater effluent, factory farms, and energy/mineral extraction activities like fracking. The overall scarcity of water due to such factors leads to water rationing, or the conservation and limited use of fresh water supplies in a given area.

Additionally, the issue of a given group’s “right” to a specific source and amount of water is causing many political and legal problems. This can be considered an “Environmental Justice” issue (see below). For instance, in many western communities in the United States, farmers require water for their crops while urban communities require municipal water supplies for indoor plumbing…. The question is: Who should receive how much water at any given location of water supply and who decides this?

The result of the debate over who should be in control of the world’s water supply has led to the commodification of water. Water has been slowly transformed from being available to all as a public right, to a tradable commodity. This view of the global water supply has developed in the 20th century as environmental degradation leads to increasing polluted water supplies and desertification. As a result, the poorest and most needy populations often end up paying the most for water from a few private multinational water companies who monopolize the global water market. Another problem with water commodification is that the physical, mental, social, political, and economic stresses experienced by those without access to a clean drinking water are played out in often deadly water-related conflicts all over the globe. With climate change and global warming, scientists and policy experts worry that clean water scarcity will soon become the world’s most urgent environmental problem.


What’s been done?

Many activists worry that water rights issues are resulting in the commodification of this essential substance. As such, water rights activists call for the preservation and protection of freshwater sources so that all people may enjoy access to safe, clean, and free drinking water supplies. Groups like Food & Water Watch work to curb pollution of Earth’s freshwater supplies and have joined in the fight against climate change so that future environmental catastrophes, which could jeopardize clean water supplies, are diverted. Other groups seeking to promote fair and just water rights for all people include the World Water Council, Water.org, Charity: Water, Global Water Brigades, Global Water Policy Project, Clear Blue Water Project, The Water Project, United Water, and Global Water, among others.

The Transnational Institute has worked to promote “Water Justice” across the world. The group is seeking solutions to the issues surrounding public water supply allotment and distribution, with their ideas explained in their constantly updated online “book,” Reclaiming Public Water.

Many countries have developed legislation meant to protect water quality, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act in the United States. Unfortunately, despite such regulation, contamination of the world’s water supplies remains a persistent problem. To deal with issues of contamination and scarcity, various technologies have been developed to ensure people have access to freshwater all over the world. Such technologies include desalination of seawater, the LifeStraw, the SlingShot water purifier, the LIFESAVER Jerrycan and Stellenbosch University’s Water Institute HOPE Project’s reusable bottle and “tea-bag” water filter duo

 What can you do?

-Don’t waste water…use it wisely!

 Here are some easy ways to preserve and protect freshwater supplies:

-Do not irrigate your lawn or garden…let rain do the work for you. Or, try a xeriscape garden, which requires no watering!

-Don’t use pesticides to fertilize your lawn or garden

-Shorten your showers by a minute or two, and you can save 150 gallons of water a month!

-Be sure to use only organic, biodegradable shampoos, conditioners, soaps, cleaning products, and other items so water sources are not polluted. See the Safe Cosmetics Campaign Guide for more info!

-Check out 100 ways to conserve water here!

learn more here:


The Race to Buy Up the World’s Water by Jeneen Interlandi (Newsweek, 2010)

Water Crisis Hitting Food, Energy—And Everything Else by Stephen Leahy (IPS, 2013)

We Need Water Markets if We’re Going to Solve the Global Water Crisis by Karen Corey (Huffington Post, 2013)

What 11 Billion People Mean for Water Scarcity by Tia Ghose (LiveScience, 2013)

With or Without $2 Billion, Water Woes Unlikely to Go Away by Neena Satija (The New York Times, 2013)




Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition by Marc Reisner (1993)

The Atlas of Water, Second Edition: Mapping the World’s Most Critical Resource by Maggie Black, Janet King, and Candida Lacey (2009)

Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis by Brahma Chellaney (2013)

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon (2011)

Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit by Vandana Shiva (2002)

When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—the Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century by Fred Pearce (2007)



Blue Gold: World Water Wars (2009)

Chinatown (1999)

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Flow: How Did a Handful of Corporations Steal Our Water? (2008)

Tapped (2010)

Water: The Great Mystery (2008)


Film clips 

Climate Change and Water: Rights and Runoff (University of California Television, 2008)

Climate Change and Water Wars: Interview with Vandana Shiva (Global Oneness, 2012)

Fresh Water Scarcity: An Introduction to the Problem (Ted-Ed: Christina Z. Peppard, 2013)

Wall Street and the Water Cycle—Vandana Shiva (Thrive Movement, 2011)

Water, The World Water Crisis (Illustrated Ideas, 2012)