Bioethics Blogs

Water, Health, & Social Justice

Shawn H.E. Harmon and Janice E. Graham advocate for a public interest approach to the governance of water.


Earlier this month, a boil water advisory was issued for Schreiber Ontario. Such advisories are not uncommon in Canada, despite it being one of the world’s wealthiest and most developed countries. In 2015, there were over 1,838 boil water advisories, including 139 in First Nations and Inuit communities, where an estimated 20,000 Indigenous Canadians have no access to running water or sewage. Boil water advisories were placed in 29 Nova Scotia communities on 21 December 2016. On that same day, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared access to broadband internet a basic service. If access to the internet is critical to our economy, prosperity, and society, and to every citizen, as suggested in the CRTC decision, then water can be nothing less than an inalienable right, tied up as it is with life, health, and human flourishing.

Relevant fundamental human rights are enumerated in Articles 1-3 and 26-29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and in many other legal instruments. As well, the right to “sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water” has been recognized by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The European Declaration for a New Water Culture, published in 2005, encouraged a holistic approach to water that recognizes its ethical, environmental, social, economic, political, and emotional value, as well as its natural inclusion in the Heritage of the Biosphere. A subsequent 2006 United Nations Report characterized water as an essential component of security and development.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.