Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, fighting for water rights at the United Nations

“The value of water is not its price”. We speak to Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the new United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

curated by Marirosa Iannelli

Water is being traded on the stock market for the first time in history”. Many news outlets ran with this headline a few months ago, at the end of a year that was deeply scarred by the pandemic crisis. This resource, now more than ever, is essential to life and health for every single person on the planet, and yet it has become a plaything for stockbrokers rather than being protected as a key human right.

Being publicly traded has meant that water has been given an actual price, subject to fluctuations and possible speculation. It’s the first time in history that brokers can bet on the price of water. According to supporters of this decision, it will be a way of making prices more transparent, especially in regions where droughts lead to unequal access and injustice. According to its critics, the news means that water is being treated like any other commodity, such as oil and gold, thus making it vulnerable to very dangerous financial speculation.

The value of water is not its price, and we must be very careful not to fall into this incorrect interpretation

Pedro Arrojo-Agudo

“And to think that it’s only been ten years since the United Nations decided, with Resolution 64/192, to enshrine water as a human right, essential for all our lives,” says Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the new UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, who took office on 7th October 2020.

Pedro Arrojo
Pedro Arrojo was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize (the “Environmental Nobel Prize”) in 2003 for his activism to protect the Ebro River, in Spain © Goldman Prize

Pedro Arrojo defending the right to water at the UN

“Over 300 million people in the world have no access to safe, clean water. Over 2 billion people have no access to basic services for washing their hands with soap and water. Over 673 million people still defecate outdoors, an unsustainable situation that causes 423,000 deaths by diarrhoea every year”.

On World Water Day, celebrated on 22nd March, Special Rapporteur Arrojo –  professor emeritus of Economic Analysis at the University of Zaragoza and 2003 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize (the “Nobel Prize for the Environment”) – used these figures to start explaining the needs and priorities in the fight for water rights. This year, also due to the recent news about water being traded on the stock exchange, much attention was paid to the value of this “blue gold”: “The value of water is not its price, and we must be very careful not to fall into this incorrect interpretation”.

Water has a huge and complex value for our families, food, culture, health, education, economy, and the integrity of our natural environment. If we neglect any one of these aspects, we risk poorly managing this finite and irreplaceable resource. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 6 is to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. Without a complete understanding of the true multidimensional value of water, we will not be able to protect this vital resource for the benefit of all of humanity.

“Now more than ever it is time to react and join forces. In recent years, defenders of the right to water from all over the world have played a key role in monitoring cases of social injustice, the grabbing of water resources, or violations of the rights of the most fragile communities, including indigenous groups,” Arrojo continues. “It’s important to keep our eyes open and work together to ensure access to at least a vital minimum of water for everyone, at every time and in every circumstance, whether there is a pandemic or not”.

Previous work at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, carried out by Leo Héller and Catarina de Albuquerque, shows us the serious effects of water privatisation, which “has been foundational to reforms with a neoliberal approach, a widespread practice among international financial institutions starting in the 1980s”. Conflicts of interest and the power of corporations and multinationals further accentuated this process. “Private water management companies – so-called multi-utilities – have been able to reach and occupy key positions in international decision-making contexts, thus managing to carry out very influential lobbying activities”.


With almost two-thirds of the global population likely to face water stress conditions by 2025, defending water today means working toward goals, strategies, and initiatives together with citizens, governments, local administrations, and the world of science and technological innovation. Subjecting water to financial speculation has opened up scenarios that will inevitably lead to the emargination of territories, populations, small farmers, and SMEs.

“We have to go back to talking about human rights, which, more than ever before, are linked to the environment, climate, and water”. Public water, communal and participatory management, re-municipalisation, sustainable management of water resources for agriculture and industry. This is what we need, and we have to enshrine our rights in laws that protect the common good of all people, everywhere.


Water Defenders is a Water Grabbing Observatory project celebrating the tenth anniversary of the recognition of the human right to water through a series of interviews that tell the stories of grassroots battles being fought for water all over the world. A multi-faceted struggle against resource exploitation and large as well as small projects that impact communities and natural environments. Ordinary yet extraordinary men and women across the world are defending this fundamental human right. Starting from World Water Day, 22 March, LifeGate regularly publishes features by the Water Grabbing Observatory, each centred on a person fighting to protect the most precious resource we have. And claim their right to water.

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