The transformative potential of human rights : the human right to water and the courts

  • Claire McCann

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The explicit recognition of the human right to water is a relatively recent development, and the delineation of the scope and content of this right, and the attendant obligations, is still in its infancy. This thesis uses the right to water as a lens through which to explore the transformative potential of human rights and examine the role of the court as a safeguard against majoritarian and neoliberal excess. The courts, despite their institutional limitations, have a significant role to play in facilitating the enjoyment of the full catalogue of economic and social rights.

Water service provision creates a number of potential conflicts and this thesis examines the tension between the market forces governing water as an economic good, and the provision of water a basic social good. The economic model has been championed as a mechanism for ensuring secure and sustainable water use in a world of ever increasing demand; however it fails to take account of the devastating effect that the pay-per-use model can have on poor households, who are forced to unacceptable compromises in water use because they cannot afford to pay the market price for water.
This thesis takes a comparative approach to understanding how the courts can, and should, intervene to ensure that water service providers embrace their human rights obligations. Using the experience of the South African right to water litigation in particular, this thesis argues that in order to realise their transformative mandate, the courts need ensure that they are willing to engage with more than the procedural elements of the right to water. In order to have any real impact on the lives of the poor, the courts, and other institutions, need to substantiate the right to water as a form of resistance to the continued marketisation of water service provision.
Date of AwardJul 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorBrice Dickson (Supervisor) & John Morison (Supervisor)

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