World Water Day: Why Access to Clean Water is a Crucial Social Justice Issue


2013 was earmarked the year of International Water Cooperation, and with World Water Day on March 22, the United Nations is working hard to bring visibility to this important issue. Clean water isn’t something most of us in the developed world think about every day. Whenever we want a drink of cold water, we switch on the faucet or pick up a bottle from the local shop. Most of us don’t even consider the amount of water it takes to do a load of laundry or to take a hot shower each morning. Having instantaneous access to potable water has become so commonplace that you would be hard pressed to find an individual who knows the history of how water systems were developed in Western Europe or North America. Unfortunately, however, we still live in a world in which three people die every ten minutes because of a lack of safe drinking water, and in which most of us are blind to the reasons why.

Whenever we do think about a lack of access to clean water (maybe because a charity’s campaign caught our attention), it congers up images of African women forced to walk miles to the nearest well, or of refugee camps in the Middle East in which families stand in line each night waiting to brush their teeth. Most believe that a lack of access to clean water is a problem of development or disaster alone. The more we promote a democratic, free-market system and economic prosperity, the more these issues will slowly disappear. Wells will be built and infrastructure will bring clean water to homes across the world, right?

Maybe, but most experts know that the situation is not so clear-cut. As many have pointed out, water is important not only because it sustains us, but because access to clean water is linked to all kinds of issues including the environment, gender, class, and race. Essentially, access to clean water is a social justice issue that could be solved by addressing the greater structural issues that cause inequality.

Throughout the developing world, access to clean water is secure if you own something. Families that own their own land can purchase a pump and guarantee access to fresh water, albeit with more difficulties than most people living in London or New York. Families without land, however, must find other ways of accessing clean water, including purchasing water or collecting it from public land. This creates a situation in which low-income people without the means for ownership must spend disproportionate amounts of time and energy in the pursuit of water. Laws that favor equality or inequality, such as those surrounding access to social property, state provision, and property relations, determine who has access to clean water and when. The most visible example of the way legislation can affect access to water is that of Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000. Structural reforms imposed by the International Monetary Fund led to the privatization of the local water system, making water unaffordable for the majority of residents. In this case, protests succeeded in shutting down the city and eventually regaining access to water resources. Despite this victory, restricted access to water is still a reality for many in countries across the world, despite the importance of this resource for both health and survival.

In the developed world governments made the decision to publicly manage water systems, and this choice has been a positive one for all involved. The price of water is usually a very small fraction of the average household income, meaning that water is affordable for almost everyone. Despite this, minorities and low-income households still have more difficulties accessing clean water in the United States. By promoting the privatization of water systems in the developing world, we are creating an unsustainable situation in which economic and other inequalities dictate who is to live and who is to die. People across the world still turn a blind eye to the injustice of unequal living standards and life expectancy, but isn’t it time to draw the line at denying people access to the natural resource that absolutely guarantees survival?

There is one big issue that appears to be missing from the bright flashy website of the U.N.’s campaign for water, and that is the issue of social justice and equal access to resources. This World Water Day, it is time to look past the more visible campaigns for development and start thinking about how to change the policies that make some people water-poor while others are water-plentiful.