Right to Water

Water is one of the essential and fundamental needs of the humankind without which no one can survive. The right to water provides access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use. Right to Life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India under its broad perspective includes right to access to clean drinking water along with the right to food, right to clean environment and right to health.


Water is an essential component of life. The right to get water is not stated clearly and in details in the Indian Constitution as a Fundamental Right but in several judgements, it has been interpreted by the Indian Judiciary, both at the states as well as centre, that Article 21 includes a right to clean and safe drinking water, a right to live with dignity and peace, and a right to a humane and healthy environment which indicates a right to water to all the members of the community be it is a human or animal. The right to livelihood broadly mentioned under Article 21 includes the right to safe, sufficient drinking water and sanitation.

International treaties also support the drafter’s consideration of water to be treated as a fundamental resource. Several rights including the right to food, human health and development protected by the international treaties cannot attain guarantee without also guaranteeing access to basic clean water. The UNO passed a resolution in 1977 supporting the view of the right to water during the United Nations Water Conference as under:

“All people have the right to have access to drinking water in quantum and of a quality equal to their basic needs, whatever be their stage of development and their social and economic conditions.”

World Water Day is celebrated on 22nd March every year since 1993.


On 28 July 2010, the Human Right to Water and Sanitation was recognized as a human right by the United Nations General Assembly. In 2015, a revised UN resolution highlighted that the two rights were separate but equal.

Right to Water

It includes access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.

Right to Sanitation

It entitles everyone to have access to physical, affordable, safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable sanitation and also which provides privacy and ensures dignity.

The right to access clean drinking water includes the following –

  • Access to sufficient water – It ordinarily includes sufficient and continuous supply of water for drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, personal and household hygiene.
  • Access to safe water –It requires water to be free from micro-organisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards which are a threat to life. It should meet the standards of quality of drinking water.
  • Access to acceptable water – It should be acceptable in colour, odour and taste for both domestic and personal use to main the hygiene.
  • Physically accessible – It should be available to everyone whether within or in the surrounding area of households, educational institutions, workplace or health institutions.
  • Affordable – It is the basic need of human kinds, therefore, must be affordable service for everyone.

The Right to Water– Flowing from the Right to Life

The Courts have protected the right to clean drinking water as a negative right i.e., the right not to have water sources pollutes. Article 21 of the Constitution of India has developed the concept of the right to ‘healthy environment’ as a part of the right to life. In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India[i], the Supreme Court protected the Right to clean drinking water as a part of the right to a healthy environment to deal with the water pollution cases coming before in the early nineties onwards.

An important pronouncement of the Hon’ble Supreme Court was in the case of A. P. Pollution Control Board II v. Prof. M. V. Nayudu[ii], the government of Andhra Pradesh had granted an exemption to the polluting industries in violation of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 and allowed to set up near the two main reservoirs in AP – the HimayatSagar lake and the Osman Sagar lake. The Supreme Court struck down such exemption and held that the “Environment Protection Act and The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 did not enable the State for a particular industry to grant exemption within the area prohibited for the location of polluting industries.”

Referring to India’s participation in UNO Water Conference, the Court held that the right to access to drinking water is fundamental to life and it is a duty on the State to provide clean drinking water to the citizens under Article 21.

Water as a Social Asset

Water is characterized as a ‘social resource’. Following key judicial pronouncements was made by the Indian Courts which provides the right to life in Constitution means right to water and sanitation as well:

In Francis Coralie Mullin v. The Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi[iii], the Supreme Court held that the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity which includes all necessities such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter, facilities for reading, writing and expressing, freedom to move and mix and mingle with the fellow human beings.

In Narmada BachaoAndolan v. Union of India[iv], in 2002, the apex court validated the Sardar Sarovar dam project on the Narmada in 2000 by interpreting article 21 as the right to water. “Water is the basic need for survival and can be served only by providing a source of water where there is none.”

In M C Mehta v. Union of India[v], the apex court while delivering a verdict on a Public Interest Litigation on fast depletion of groundwater in Delhi ruled it is a social asset and people have the right to use air, water and earth as per the interpretation made under Article 21. It was further observed that domestic and irrigation needs must be prioritized.

Organisations working on right to water and sanitation

  1. International Organisations
  2. OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights)
  3. UNDP (United Nations Development Programme)
  5. Governmental Cooperation agencies
  6. DFID (United Kingdom’s Cooperation Agency)
  7. GIZ (German Corporation for International Cooperation)
  8. SDC (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation)
  9. International non-governmental organizations
  10. ACF (Action against Hunger)
  11. FAN (Freshwater Action Network)
  12. The Dig Deep Right to Water Project
  13. Madre Acqua, NGO
  14. The Pacific Institute
  15. Transnational Institute with the Water Justice Project
  16. UUSC
  17. Water Aid
  18. Water Lex
  19. Peace Jam
  20. International networks
  21. FAN (Freshwater Action Network)
  22. EWN (Ecumenical Water Network)


Constitutional Provisions

  1. Article 246 –Subject-matter of laws made by Parliament and by the Legislatures ofStates (Constitution of India)
  2. The Union List (List I) – Entry 56
  3. The State List (List II) – Entry 17
  4. Article 262 – Adjudication to the disputes relating to waters of inter-State rivers or river-valleys  (Constitution of India)
  5. Article 21 – Right to Life (Constitution of India)

International agreements and conventions

  • Mar Del Plata Declaration (1977) – It states that all people have the right to drinking water in quality and quantity, irrespective of the level of economic development of the native country and stage of development.
  • Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979[Article 14 2(h)] – It provides provision of water and sanitation to women.
  • Convention on Rights of Child, 1989 [Article 24 2(c)] – It introduced right to the safe drinking water of a child from a non-polluted source. 
  • Agenda 21, UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992) – It calls for the provision of safe drinking water and environmental sanitation for poverty alleviation.
  • Programmes of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo 1994) – It mentions the right to water and sanitation in realizing complete human potential and sustainable development.
  • Article 11 (1) – International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Case Study

Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India[vi]

The Supreme Court held that a person’s right to fresh air, clean water and the pollution-free environment is protected by the Constitutional and Statutory provisions. The source of right is an absolute common law right of a clean environment. The Supreme Court after examining the facts of the case awarded compensation to the victims of pollution based on the ‘precautionary principle’ and the ‘polluter pays principle’.


As courts have interpreted water as a social asset, it is the duty of the citizens who are availing those rights to protect and save it for future use as with rights comes responsibilities. Some awareness needs to be made concerning drinking water and sanitation such as:

  • Informing, encouraging and empowering communities about their rights and responsibilities.
  • To protect water sources so that they are sustained in quality and quantity.
  • To preserve nature to make a cleaner environment and judicious use of water.
  • Engaging with the governments for sharing experiences.
  • Adopt self-regulatory mechanisms to control the use of water.



Which movement in Sardar Sarovar Dam is related to?

Answer: Narmada Bachao Andolan

What is the major source of freshwater?

Answer: Groundwater

What was the theme of World Water Day 2020?

Answer: Water and climate change

Which international networks are working on right to water and sanitation?

Answer: FAN and EWN

When right to water and sanitation was was recognized as human rights?

Answer: on 28 July 2010 by United Nations General Assembly


[ii](2001)2 SCC62.

[iii] 1981 (2) SCR516.

[iv] (2000) 10 SCC664.

[v]2004 (12) SCC118.

[vi](1996) 5 SCC 647.

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