The Human Right to Water: Justice . . . or Sham?

The Legal, Philosophical, and Theological Background of the New Human Right to Water

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Evelyne Fiechter-Widemann
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , May
     426 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Human Right to Water: Justice...or Sham? is an inquiry into the legal, moral, and economic questions of water governance. It is divided into six sections introducing the challenge of water inequality, a survey of different approaches based on scientific and political norms, a theological and philosophical debate on the human right to water, the problematic concept of responsibility and ethics, applying the golden rule for universal access to potable water, and strategies for mitigating water poverty. Evelyne Fiechter-Widemann adopts an interdisciplinary mode and concludes that “the new human right to water has no foundation in is not a legal rule that can be applied as is by the courts” (136). Instead, it is a statement of sympathy and call to action.

Fiechter-Widemann traces the development of the human rights corpus in explanations of natural law, Mosiac law, Greco-Roman jurisprudence, the American Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She frames the conversation about water inequality with neoliberalism’s three main characteristics: government serves private interests, competition rules trade, and an artificial market affects all sectors of human activity (5). In her analyses of global poverty, she cites John Calvin’s concept of money and influence on capitalism. Calvin’s model requires that a rich man do more than enjoy his wealth and give alms; he should use his talents and resources to improve the material conditions of the poor and his neighbors. She contrasts the Calvinist veneration of work and abundance as God’s favor to the Marxist hatred of labor, money, and religion. Fiechter-Widemann imagines dialogue with Immanuel Kant, and examines the precedents for the rule of law, the principle of legal advantage, and the motives of survival, will, and pleasure.

The water problem is material and ethical. Freshwater available to humans, animals, and the ecosystem is decreasing, due to overpopulation, pollution, and global climate change. Humans are vulnerable to water scarcity and mismanagement. Many populations lack adequate sanitation systems and education in hygiene. Businesses and philanthropists need to assume social responsibility for human dignity. Fichter-Widemann notes mobilization for water through the United Nations International Decade for Action: Water for Life 2005-2015, the Ecumenical Declaration on Water as a Human Right and Public Good (2005), the World Council of Churches Statement on Water for Life (2006), and a U.N. General Assembly Resolution on the Human Right to Water (2010). 

Fiechter-Widemann is ambitious in the scope of her book and in her use of innovative forms to interrogate the topic. Her thesis would be stronger if she focused more on close readings of source documents. Her fantasy chats with dead philosophers and water itself are sometimes too heavy-handed. The lack of case studies and review of policy and implementation is a serious missed opportunity. Her argument, while provocative, could be better organized and executed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a public scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Evelyne Fiechter-Widemann, hon. attorney at law, completed a PhD in Theology at the Theological Faculty of Geneva, Switzerland, in 2015. She holds a Master's of Comparative Jurisprudence (MCJ) from New York University. She served as a deputy judge on a commission of the Administrative Court of Geneva (CRUNI) and taught Swiss and international public law at the College de Geneve. She has served as a member of the board of a Swiss international relief organization (EPER/HEKS).


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