Hesperian Health Guides

The Right to Enough Safe Water

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 5: Health Problems from Unsafe Water > The Right to Enough Safe Water

Around the world people are working to protect their right to health, including the right to a good supply of safe water. Private companies say they can provide better service than governments and still make a profit. But when private companies take control of water services (called water privatization), prices often go up, forcing people to use less water than they need for good health. Many people then have no choice but to collect water wherever they can for free, even if the water is contaminated with germs, worms, or toxic chemicals. This leads to serious health problems.

Governments and communities must work together to improve and extend water systems so they provide a safe and sufficient supply of water, especially for those most in need.

Partnership improves the water supply
A woman with a baby on her back shakes hands with a man near a village pump as other people look on.

In Ghana, West Africa, community groups have taken control of their water supply. In the town of Savelugu, the government-owned Ghana Water Company supplies piped water, and community members are responsible for pricing, distribution, and repair of the water system. They call this a "government-community partnership."

Because the community is responsible for managing the water, safe and sufficient water is guaranteed by popular decision making. If some people cannot afford to pay for water, the community pays for their water until they can afford to pay. People's needs are met not because they have money to pay, but because they are part of the community. The Ghana Water Company benefits because the community always pays them for supplying the water.

Savelugu's community-based system is being used as a model for towns throughout Ghana. By managing their own water system, the people of Savelugu have shown that privatization is not the only way to provide water. Since their government-community partnership began, there is less illness, and everyone has enough water.

Bottling and selling the right to water

When people do not trust that water from their taps is clean, those who can afford to, buy bottled water. If there are germs in tap water, drinking safe bottled water is a way to avoid illness. But just because water is sold in a bottle does not mean it is safe. In many cases, bottled water is just tap water in a bottle, but sold at a much higher price. The best way to support the health of both people and the environment is to improve water quality and reliability by improving the public water supply.

When you consider the health problems caused by making the plastic bottles water is sold in, as well as filling, transporting, and disposing of them, the cost of bottled water is higher than providing safe water for everyone.

A man wearing a tie covered with dollar signs fills a bottle labelled "Mountain Springs Superior Water" from a tap labelled "Municipal Tap Water."

Companies sell bottled water because it is very profitable. They often advertise their water products in ways to make people think that publicly supplied water is not healthy or "good enough." Multinational companies that sell water, like Coca Cola, often harm the local economy by driving local soft drink companies out of business. Sometimes they use so much water they harm people by creating a shortage of water for drinking, household needs, irrigation of crops, and other local activities (see story “Industry takes a community’s water”).

Safe, healthy piped water systems are one of the most important ways to improve health for everyone. In Europe and North America, safe water systems are the very foundation of public health. There is no reason why people in less wealthy countries should suffer from a lack of safe water and be forced to buy expensive bottled water.

Having enough clean water to live a healthy life is a human right. Protecting and fulfilling people's right to water is best achieved by publicly managed or community controlled water systems. To make sure government provides good service, community members are increasingly involved in overseeing water utilities. This helps make sure they are managed with people's health as the top priority.