Inga T. Winkler. The Human Right to Water: Significance, Legal Status and Implications for Water Allocation (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2014), pp. 376.

Reviewed by: Samuel Adu-Gyamfi (Lecturer, Department of History and Political Studies, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi-Ghana)

The Human Right to Water deals with a topical issue that is at the heart of the human condition and development. Essentially, access to water is intimately connected to poverty reduction and improvement in livelihood (Obeng-Odoom 2012). The preamble of Winkler’s book highlights the inequities of access to water by citing the challenges faced by people living in urban areas of developing countries. The book discusses the dangers associated with polluted or untreated water.

Existing literature has examined the issue of water and how useful it is to the society. For example, the research of McGarvey et al. (2008), which focused on the central region of Ghana, showed that there were small amounts of E. coli in tap water. This is also aggravated by the fact that tap water supply is irregular in several countries. Viala (2008) has proposed that agricultural irrigation practices, rapid urbanization, and climate change increase pressure on water resources. Gleick (1998) points out that by acknowledging a human right to water and expressing the willingness to meet this right for those currently deprived of it, the water community would have a useful tool for addressing one of the most fundamental failures of development in the twentieth century. The other important works that tease out the issue of water’s importance in the life of humanity include Vörösmarty et al. (2010), whose work focused on global threats to human water security and river biodiversity; Allan’s (1998) “Virtual Water: a Strategic Resource” solutions to regional deficits, which focuses on defining water deficits. Benjaminsen and Lund (2002) wrote on the formalization and informalization of land and water rights in Africa. Bigas (2012) elucidates that the global water crisis is an urgent security issue. Similarly, Winkler examines the challenges associated with water and the need to consider it as a right. The author identifies a lacuna in the existing research and argues that, from a legal perspective, many questions remain unanswered concerning the status of the right to water. To fill this gap, the author uses a detailed analysis of legal foundations promoting the human right to water and deals with several questions of allocation and prioritization.

Wayuu villagers in Pessuapa, Colombia, make use of their local, ever-diminishing watering hole. Over the past years climate change has forced water shortages, particularly severe in the indigenous Wayuuís arid territory in northeast Colombia.

Colombia’s Indigenous Wayuu Struggle with Water Shortages. photo credit: UN Photo/Gill Fickling

Pollution and contamination of freshwater aggravates the current water situation. Winkler argues that water pollution is caused by agriculture activities that overuse nitrogen-rich fertilizers among others (pp. 26-27).

The book outlines the legal foundations of the human right to water and emphasizes that access to water is a basic human need. It notes that this alone does not imply that water is a recognized human right, which leaves many unanswered questions. Winkler shows that the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights do not explicitly capture or recognize the human right to water (p. 37). The author explains that the Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties has important provisions that determine the right to water (p. 38).

The author mentions other treaties, including article 28(2) (a) of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). According to Winkler, the aforementioned Convention states that an individual’s access to water is a right (pp. 53-54). Article 14(2) (h) in The Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) “states that the right to adequate living conditions shall be ensured” (p. 55). Winkler proposes that “[i]n contrast to article 11 of the Social Covenant, it refers specifically to water supply” (p. 59). Additional provisions are included in articles 24 (2) (c) of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and 14 (2) (c) of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, as well as in the articles 39 (e) and (f) of the Arab Charter of Human Rights in the context of the right to health. Additionally, the concept is discussed in the protocol 15 to the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in the context of the right to food security and in 28 (2) (a) CRPD in the context of the right to an adequate standard of living (p. 256). Though the respective charters do not refer directly to the right to water; rights that relate to welfare, health, food security, and adequate standard of living are in tandem with the rights to water because they are at the heart of ensuring the survival of humanity. The Human Right to Water pays attention to the legal nature of the right to water, obligations arising from the right to water, the issue of non-discrimination, obligations to progressive realization, and core obligations. At the core of the discourse is the normative content of the right to water, where attention is paid to the availability of water, while water for sanitation is treated as a special case (p. 127). The book shows that the normative content of the “right to water relates to water for personal and domestic use” (p. 278). The author notes that “[w]ater must be provided in sufficient quantity and of such quality that it does not pose a threat to human health” (p. 140).

Critical to the discourse, as exposed in the book, are human rights implications for water allocation. The goal is to establish a more equitable distribution of water. It focuses initially on current trends in water allocation by discussing some impactful declarations on international water policy (ex. The Mar Del Plata Action Plan, which was adopted at the UN’s conference on water in 1977 and applies to all sectors of water) and then presents examples of national water legislation that address the issue of prioritization (pp. 141-142).

The author argues that equity does not provide clear guidelines on how to achieve the prioritization of basic human needs. The reader’s attention is also drawn to the principle 4 of the Dublin Principles, which was adopted at the International Conference on Water and the Environment. This principle “acknowledges that water has an economic value” (p. 143). Fundamentally, the goal of this principle is to avoid wasteful and environmentally damaging use of water, to achieve efficient and equitable use, and to have an optimal allocation to yield the highest economic return.


Monitoring Water Use Efficiency in Qazvin through City Prosperity Initiative. photo credit: UN-Habitat

Instead of adopting pro-poor policies, “current policies on water are often defined in such a way to protect the interest of the ‘haves’” (pp. 212-213). One of the key issues discussed in this book is the possibility of a judicial enforcement. The book argues that the “judicial enforcement of the right to water is a means to subject duty bearers to determine whether rights have been violated, and to allow for reparation and redress in cases of violations” (p.  229).

Finally, the reader is assured that

human rights have the potential to empower people. An approach based on human rights aims at strengthening people’s agency and the ability to act on their own behalf through human rights education, capacity building, and raising negotiation and advocacy skills. It puts people in a position to rely on human rights and claim these, instead of merely asserting that they have needs. As a result, people… no longer perceive themselves as victims – but as individuals with legal entitlements (p. 284).

The book is a novel and masterful piece on human rights of water. Winkler’s thesis did not attempt to address extraneous matters outside the need to see water as a human right issue. The lucid interpretation and inferences of the international conventions and protocols on water presented in this book cannot be opposed.


Allan, J. A. (1998). “Virtual Water: a Strategic Resource.” Ground water36(4), 545-547.

Benjaminsen, T. A., and Lund, C. (2002). “Formalisation and Informalisation of Land and Water Rights in Africa: An Introduction.” The European Journal of Development Research14(2), 1-10.

Bigas, H. (2012). The Global Water Crisis: Addressing an Urgent Security Issue.

Gleick, P. H. (1998). “The Human Right to Water.” Water policy1(5), 487-503.

McGarvey, S. T., Buszin, J., Reed, H., Smith, D. C., Rahman, Z., Andrzejewski, C., White, M. J. (2008). “Community and Household Determinants of Water Quality in Coastal Ghana.” Journal of Water and Health6(3), 339-349.

Obeng-Odoom, F. (2012). “Beyond Access to Water.” Development in Practice22(8), 1135-1146.

Viala, E. (2008). “Water for Food, Water for Life a Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture.” Irrigation and Drainage Systems22(1), 127-129.

Vörösmarty, C. J., McIntyre, P. B., Gessner, M. O., Dudgeon, D., Prusevich, A., Green, P., Davies, P. M. (2010). “Global Threats to Human Water Security and River Biodiversity.” Nature467(7315), 555-561.