From Maxwell Perspective...

The Right to Water

At the conference Farhana Sultana organized this spring, water was viewed not just as a precious resource, but a basic human right.

Farhana Sultana and participants in the Right to Water conference she organized in March.

”Water has always been the lens through which I look at social issues,” says Farhana Sultana, an assistant professor of geography who spearheaded an international conference at Maxwell in the spring titled The Right to Water. Sultana traces her fascination with water to her childhood in Bangladesh, where she learned firsthand how “too much water can kill but also too little water can kill. So just having grown up being very affected by various types of water events, whether floods or tsunamis or shortages of potable drinking water, that really gave me a sense of the importance that water plays.”

The idea of the water conference, originally hatched by Sultana with Alex Loftus, a former colleague at the University of London who does research on water issues in South Africa, was to bring together not just academics but practitioners, policy makers, and activists from around the world who rarely have the chance to compare notes and trade ideas in real time. This blend of perspectives comes naturally to Sultana, who first trained in geology and environmental studies at Princeton, then worked for several years managing environmental projects in Bangladesh for the United Nations Development Programme, before returning to the U.S. for her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Minnesota.

Working at the UNDP, she says, “gave me the more applied practical tools to understand how development works and where it falls apart.” The United Nations’ articulation in 2002 of a universal human right to water also provided the thematic springboard for the conference. The goal of the two-day gathering, says Sultana, was to “look at the right to water and how it plays out on the ground — in terms of issues of legalities, governance, or even philosophical approaches to how water should be managed. If the right to water is an established human right, how do we materialize that?”

The plenary session brought together experts who embodied the international and interdisciplinary nature of the conference. From academe, David Getches, University of Colorado Law School, spoke about the ramifications of treating water as property; while Patrick Bond, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and Bill Derman, from the Norwegian University of the Life Sciences, described struggles for water justice in Africa. Rounding out the panel were the Onondaga Nation faithkeeper Oren Lyons, who has been active in global water issues for decades; Darcey O’Callaghan, international policy director for Food and Water Watch in Washington; and activist Anil Naidoo from Canada’s Blue Planet Project.

The issues the speakers raised were, like water itself, both global and local in scope: from the melting ice caps to mercury pollution in Onondaga Lake, from battles over privatization and corporate control of fresh water to desalination, hydrofracking, and the marketing of bottled water (which was notably absent on the dais, in favor of a pitcher of tap water).

“We live in a world where more than a billion people do not have access to safe water.”
Farhana Sultana
As O’Callaghan pointed out in her opening remarks, the idea of a universal human right to water is common in Europe and elsewhere in the world but rarely discussed in the United States, where debates about water rights tend to focus more on private property, market forces, and the individual. For this reason, Sultana says, it was particularly meaningful that the conference be held in the U.S.

All parts of the two-day event, from the opening lectures through paper and poster sessions and a closing workshop, were packed with three dozen presenters from various countries and several hundred attendees — a mix of Syracuse University faculty and students and local community members with scholars and practitioners who’d come from as far away as New Zealand. Sultana worked with faculty members across SU — in the earth sciences, geography, law, communications, engineering — plus the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry to incorporate conference topics into course work and engage students with the issues.

Sultana’s goal is to pull the threads of the conference together into an edited volume that carries the conversation and debates to a broader audience. In her mind, the best scholarship is about “doing good academic work and then not only speaking to the ivory tower, but having connections and collaborations with people in other settings, whether it’s the activist community, practitioner community, or policy making community. It’s about opening up spaces to have conversations that would otherwise not happen.”

Besides, she adds, the topic of water rights is anything but narrowly academic. “We live in a world where more than a billion people do not have access to safe water. What does that mean for our humanity and our sense of global citizenship or us as a human community, if we cannot ensure basic rights to water and sanitation and have young children dying, whether from water-borne diseases or from lack of quality water or reliable water sources? So the right to water is somewhat esoteric at one level, but at the same time it has very big practical implications.”

—Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and the author, most recently, of The Complete Singer-Songwriter.
This article appeared in the spring 2010 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2010 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail