Why rights unlock resilience

Water security owes less to any chosen technology than to the forces behind it. Substitute ‘dams’ with ‘desalination plants,’ ‘groundwater banks,’ ‘rainwater harvesting,’ ‘water markets,’ ‘weed removal,’ ‘resource recovery,’ ‘saline agriculture’ or any diversified drought response in this issue. These merely provide tools against scarcity. To unlock the source of resilience you must address the underlying form and content of political decisions.

That means rights.

Rights are sensitive and volatile constructs. They have often been framed as defensive or reactive forces, a legal bubble to protect life, liberty, and property from abuse by powerful interests. Rights ensure freedom of speech, assembly, cultural and ecological integrity. They make developers seek the free, prior and informed consent of those affected by their interventions. Thus, rights can enunciate for the voiceless, empower the helpless, and enrich the poor.

Rights also may slake thirst, but in a way that isn’t always immediately obvious.

The need for rights appeals to our heartstrings. Catarina de Albuquerque, 2016 IWA Global Water Award winner, worked tirelessly to ensure that the UN General Assembly recognised water and sanitation as a human right, then helped embed this right in the Sustainable Development Goals. For her, rights are for “changing the world” and addressing “the injustices and inequalities I saw” in urban slums.

Yet rights rarely emerge in a vacuum, free, without resistance. Rights entail responsibilities, articulated or otherwise. Rights are costly. Economists found that nations with a human right to water perform no better (and in some cases worse) in service provision than those without it. No wonder central hierarchies tend to challenge and dismiss rights, rights holders, and rights-based approaches as negative, messy obstructions that slow, undermine, or veto their own ‘best choice.’

Happily, experience suggests otherwise. Water rights and rights to water reveal themselves as positive and proactive forces that improve development processes by uncovering the most durable solutions. Any technology may deliver substantial benefits, but often at an unnecessarily high price to people and nature. These negative, excessive costs can be avoided if stakeholders hold meaningful rights.

This reverses our assumptions. It means rights serve not only emotions–the pitiful poor and the marginalised–but also the economic and political self- interests of power.

Why? Because rights impose limits. And just as demarcated boundaries make athletes improve their game, clearly defined rights force humankind to confront finite resources and find the most creative way forward.

If necessity is the mother of individual invention, rights are the father of collective innovation.

Empowering all people with the secure right to safe water and sanitation–whether as an inalienable human right or a transferable property right–brings more than democratic legitimacy to a decision. It engages a larger, autonomous pool for the ‘wisdom of crowds,’ who consider a spectrum of diverse options. The outcome that emerges is more equitable, adaptable, sustainable, affordable, and as a result, resilient.

This most recent issue of The Source suggests a pattern: water scarcity brings conflict, conflict leads to rights, and rights establish a foundation for negotiation, a catalyst for decision- making, and a source of ingenuity.