Human Rights, Climate Change and the Whole Water Cycle – Why climate responses require a human rights perspective that incorporates a whole water cycle approach?

When? 10am CEST Friday 24 June 2022

Where? Register for this event on Zoom using this link –

Water is essential for a healthy environment and human life, including through the
realisation of human rights. However, the study, regulation and protection of water
from a legal perspective is often considered highly technical and, accordingly,
compartmentalised. Depending on where is found, water is commonly regarded as a ‘good’ in its natural form, comprising oceans, rivers, lacunas, glaciers and other
components of the environment; or as a ‘service’, after a series of technical processes that make it apt for human consumption.

From a human rights perspective, it could be said that the protection of the right to water mainly focuses in guaranteeing the access to water, without considering the array of processes and normative to make it accessible to individuals and communities. Indeed, the human rights understanding of water and the right to water is essentially disassociated of the whole water cycle. For instance, General Comment 15 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights acknowledges the right to water as “a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights;” and establishes that “[the] human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”

Indeed, water is largely regarded as a final product in human rights, isolated from its natural sources (in the shape of, inter alia, oceans, rivers and glaciers) and the whole water cycle necessary to make it available for humans. This approach is problematic as water-related laws and policy decisions with human rights implications are often based on this incomprehensive understanding. This is particularly problematic in the context of climate change, which exacerbates already existing water-related problems and the need to embed a whole water cycle approach in climate measures.

Water scarcity and unprecedented droughts are increasingly affecting several regions worldwide. At the same time, ecosystems and communities worldwide are continuously affected by the impact of extractive activities linked to water sources. This year, for example, the oil spill in the Pacific Ocean in the coast of Peru resulting from corporate extractive activities caused what is considered the worst ecological disaster in the country, leaving more than 700 hectares of water environmentally damaged and put at risk the health and livelihood of coastal communities.

Climate responses require thus a human rights perspective that incorporates a whole water cycle approach, whereby water and its protection encompasses all phases and processes to make water apt and accessible to individuals and communities. Such approach should be taken into account in human rights law and policy-making, including in water-related decisions with economic implications. The growing recognition of legal personhood of components of the environment like rivers or oceans is a step forward in this direction due to the intrinsic linkages between humans and the environment. However, a human rights-based interpretation of these advancements should not be limited to a natural source of water such as a river, but it should be extensive to the whole water cycle where its waters intervene.


Dr Marlene Payva is a lawyer and independent researcher in the fields of international law, environmental law, international human rights law, and climate change law. Marlene’s research is multidisciplinary in essence. Her current research explores the intersection between rights of nature, human rights and climate change, and its potential to advance global climate action. She is also writing an academic article on the legal challenges for a sustainable future, which argues the need of rethinking the notion of nature in international law amidst climate change.

Marlene was awarded her PhD from the University of Liverpool in 2021. She also holds an LLM of Advanced Studies in Public International Law (with specialization in justice, peace and development) from the University of Leiden (Netherlands); an MSc in International Relations from the Barcelona Institute of International Studies, University of Barcelona (Spain); and an MA in Law from San Martin de Porres University (Peru). She is also a member of the Bar Association of Lima, Peru.

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