A recent report has revealed that 90 percent of the water supply available to the residents of Karachi is unfit for human consumption. The report also shows that only one out of four individuals in Pakistan have access to clean drinking water.
Water is a basic human right under Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These articles view basic needs as basic human rights as well. As a result, the question is: who is to be held responsible for the failure to provide sufficient and clean water that is fit for human consumption?
It is first important to understand what it means for something to be a human right. Declaring something a human right means, as Kantians would argue, that human rights are universalisable. This implies that everyone has an equal and inalienable claim to that right and the right cannot be provided through the selfish notion of a means to an end. Instead, their provision must be treated as an end in itself.
If we use this understanding of human right as a guide, the question that arises is: who is obligated to ensure the provision of this water as a human right?
Generally, it is argued that the primary responsibility lies with the state. However, matters tend to boil down to the heads of families at the household level and are in the hands of the top management at the corporate level. Therefore, one could argue that the responsibility lie with the formal and informal institutions created by the nexus of the heads of families, the corporate management and the state. Let’s review the role of each of these elements in providing sufficient and clean drinking water in Pakistan.
The state in this country primarily focuses on economic growth. That is why about 97 percent of the water that is available goes to the agricultural and industrial sectors and only three percent is left for household usage. A report shows that in Pakistan more than 200,000 children die every year owing to the lack of availability and accessibility to sufficient water that is fit for human consumption.
It comes as no surprise that a major share of water is not used for food crops. Instead, it is cash crops, like sugarcane, that are sucking up a sizeable amount of our water resources.
Water wastage is also shockingly high in both the agricultural and industrial sectors. Groundwater laws are non-existent. Under these circumstances, when cash crops and the industrial sector’s greed are driving the economy, our underground water resources are drying up. In short, the state is doing little to ensure that citizens gain access to clean and sufficient drinking water.
If the state’s policies are considered to be inefficient, corporate policies are even worse. Under the profit maximisation agenda, companies that provide bottled water have quite callously exploited Pakistan’s poor groundwater regulations. They have extracted huge amounts of water from the ground at negligible costs and made billions by selling it. They have turned water into a commodity that is accessible only to those who have money.
We, the privileged citizens, are also responsible for the crisis of providing the poor citizens of the country access to water. Privilege can be gauged in terms of power, money or awareness.
The head of a family usually holds the privilege of power. No universal declaration or other statements holds heads of families responsible for intra-household inequities. However, in Pakistan, intra-household disparities – which are often weighted against women and children – leave many individuals in a vulnerable and miserable position.
Our score on the Global Hunger Index 2016 is 33.2 and makes the likelihood of issues related to malnutrition quite severe. Much of it is owed to intra-household disparities since it has been observed that stunted growth is more prevalent among young girls. Studies also show that when the head of a family is a woman, there is a more equitable intra-household distribution of resources.
The second privilege involves the privilege of money. The bottled water providing companies know that there is enough demand for clean water in exchange for money. However, people are quite disconnected from one another even thought they belong to the same country. People in areas like Thar are dying owing to the water crisis while other areas have witnessed prosperity that goes beyond one’s imagination.
There is also a crisis of awareness and activism among the citizens. NGOs and even educated individuals should play their part in spreading mass awareness and activism. When there is awareness about what people’s rights are and how they are being violated, we can expect a mass movement that is strong enough to shake and wake the government to fulfil their responsibilities and ensure the provision of water and other basic rights. While this should be the long-term plan, Pakistan’s privileged citizens should develop suitable capabilities in the short-term to waste less and share more with the underprivileged sections of society.
It is the entire nexus of the state, corporate owners and the privileged citizens that is responsible for the shortage of drinking water that is fit for human consumption. This nexus needs to undergo thorough behavioral changes. If this does not happen, the water crisis will continue to get deepen.
The writer is pursuing an MPhil in development studies at Lahore School of Economics and works as a research associate at LUMS.