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Water as a Friend and a Right

In July 2014, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition announced the winners of its Student Essay competition, to which undergraduate and graduate students submitted essays on topics at the intersection of science, technology and human rights. The following essay won first place in the graduate student category. Read the winning undergraduate essay: Satellite Imagery in International Human Rights Litigation.

Water as a Friend and a Right
By Wasiu Adedapo Lawal

PhD candidate in Environmental Chemistry, University of Texas at Arlington

As someone conducting research on water issues, one song that has fascinated me for a while now is one titled “water no get enemy” (water has no enemies), which was performed by one of my all-time favorite artists-- Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Fela was an activist who often spoke/sang about societal ills like corruption and military oppression, even though he knew he was going to always land in trouble. He didn’t care, however, as long as his voice was heard. Now, in contrast to the typical confrontational tone of most of his other songs, “water no get enemy” sounds like Fela was paying homage to a resource that he felt was more important than any other, and this much he says in the line-- “there’s nothing you can do without water.”

That last phrase suggests that the importance of water cannot be overstated, which is probably why the United Nations has declared the “right to water” as a fundamental human right [1]. This leads me to think if the right to water is a fundamental human right, then why do we have an estimated 800 million people who lack access to clean, potable water? [2]

A closer look at this problem shows that in Africa, for instance (where a large proportion of the 800 million live) [3], the problem stems from either a physical scarcity of water (due to climatic conditions or/and the uneven distribution of resources across the continent)  or, in cases where there is substantial supply, it is not safe for consumption [2,3]. The ideal solution here would be to collect water from identified sources, treat it at sophisticated water treatment plants and then send it through pipes to homes where it is needed. Problem? Such treatment plants require a lot of energy, which is usually not feasible in most developing countries [2]. In addition, a developed country like the United States spends about $29 billion a year to maintain its water/wastewater utilities [2], whereas two-thirds of the people that lack potable water live on less than $2 a day, clearly suggesting that most African countries cannot afford to have sophisticated water systems [2]. This leads me to another question: How can this issue be alleviated and what is/should be the role of the global scientific community?

For starters, the fact that major scientific organizations such as the American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry have both recently released publications concerning this issue [2,3] suggests that science does have a big role to play. The overall strategy will have to involve portable technologies (like filters and disinfection systems) [2,3] to go with currently employed deep bore holes (more of which are still needed). Getting to the point where such technologies can be widely deployed would require two major things. Support from the governments of the various countries in terms of policy and strategy is clearly one of those. The other, is increased involvement of the scientific community.

There are a number of ways through which the scientific community can help put an end to this global water issue. Some of these include:

Research. Developing countries need low-cost technologies to help solve their water problems but these can only be achieved when adequate funding is made available for aggressive research to take place [2].

Institutional and Human Capacity. There is also a need for well-trained water professionals and properly equipped institutions to help with the effective delivery of any developed technology, while also providing accurate feedback, where necessary [2,3].

Monitoring and Management. A key part of any functional water system is monitoring to enable a continuous assessment of the performance of such systems. Analytical capabilities (analytical chemistry, biotechnology etc.) are important tools for any monitoring system, and as such, the necessary instruments should be made available to institutions in developing countries [3]. There has been a recent trend of large scale collaborations between instrument manufacturers and universities in the United States, and developing countries would stand to gain even more from such arrangements [4].

As much as this is a water issue or a poverty issue, it is also a human rights issue and as such, it is a collective responsibility of the global community to ensure that disadvantaged people have access to their rights. While it is clear that science will play a key role in fixing this problem, rich, developed countries and industry need to make a commitment to provide the necessary funds and support required to make this happen because, like Fela said in another one of his songs, “human rights na our property” (human rights belong to everyone).


1. UN News Center, General Assembly declares access to clean water and sanitation is a human right. UN News Center, 2010.

2. Scott, A. “Running Dry,” Chemical & Engineering News 2013, 91, 10-15.

3. Pan African Chemistry Network. Africa's Water Quality: A Chemical Perspective. 2010, 1-22.

4. Thayer, A. M. “Scientific Instrumentation Symbiosis,” Chemical & Engineering News 2013, 91, 10-15.


Teaser image credit: Flickr, duda_arraes - Water for the Kids