The Dark Irony of International Water Rights

15 Pages Posted: 22 Dec 2011

See all articles by Bruce Pardy

Bruce Pardy

Queen's University - Faculty of Law

Date Written: May 1, 2011


International rights to water have a seductive appeal. Water is essential to life. An estimated billion people do not have access to an adequate supply. Therefore, the argument goes, a right to water should be enshrined in international law to enable them to get the water they need.

The argument is simplistic and wrong. Water rights do not address the causes of global water problems — pollution, depletion, monopoly, corruption, conflict of interest, mismanagement, and lack of financing — and could even exacerbate them. Like international law itself, the meaning of water rights is inherently nebulous and subject to manipulation. International water rights could be given at least three different interpretations, all of them detrimental to the project of protecting water resources and maximizing access. First, a right to water could mean that governments must provide water to their citizens for free or at nominal cost, which would be counterproductive to supply. Where water is scarce, subsidizing its price exacerbates the scarcity. Second, water could come to be regarded as a common global resource, giving credence to calls for international transfers. The tragedy of the commons would beckon, imperiling the long-term viability of the resource. Third, international water rights could mean nothing at all in binding legal terms.

Good water governance requires good governance, broadly conceived. International water rights do not achieve this objective, and are likely to threaten the enterprise of protecting and providing access to water resources.

Keywords: Water, water rights, international law, environmental law, common global resources, positive rights

JEL Classification: K32, K33

Suggested Citation

Pardy, Bruce, The Dark Irony of International Water Rights (May 1, 2011). Pace Environmental Law (PELR) Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2011. Available at SSRN:

Bruce Pardy (Contact Author)

Queen's University - Faculty of Law ( email )

Macdonald Hall
Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6
613-533-6000 Ext. 77570 (Phone)
613-533-6509 (Fax)


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