Oakland Research Matters in Historic South African Water Rights Decision

For Immediate Release: May 1, 2008

(Oakland, Calif.) Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif., is celebrating a landmark in water policy. He received news of the groundbreaking April 2008 decision of the South African High Court in Johannesburg that not only awarded water rights to the poor, the first in which the constitutional right to water has explicitly been raised, but did so with explicit reference to work from the Pacific Institute. “It’s an historic decision,” he said, “and we’re thrilled to have played a role.”

The City of Johannesburg had been installing pre-paid water meters in Phiri, Soweto, cutting off the water supply when residents exceeded a monthly household limit of 6000 liters of free water per month, unless pre-payment for more was made. Judge MP Toska found this practice unconstitutional, and wrote that denying the poor access to adequate water “is to deny them the rights to health and to lead a dignified lifestyle.”

Further, the judge stated that “25 liters per person per day is insufficient for the residents of Phiri,” and ordered the city to provide free basic water in the amount of 50 liters per person per day with the option of an ordinary credit-metered water supply (instead of pre-paid) for more use.

How did the court determine how much water is sufficient to satisfy the constitutional right to water? The judge relied explicitly on research from Gleick and the Pacific Institute. “Our work on basic human needs for water has been translated directly into policy,” said Gleick, an expert on water issues whose written testimony was solicited by the plaintiffs.

Gleick had authored the seminal works “The Human Right to Water”(1999) and “Basic Water Requirements for Human Activities: Meeting Basic Needs”(1996), making the case that access to clean drinking water is a fundamental human right supported by international law, declarations, and state practices. His work proposed a basic water requirement standard for human needs of 50 liters per person per day with guaranteed access independent of an individual’s economic, social, or political status.

His amicus brief to the Court is quoted extensively in Judge Toska’s decision addressing the constitutional right to have basic water needs fulfilled. Judge Toska mandates the 50-liter figure quoting Gleick’s argument for an amount that is “appropriate for cleaning, hygiene, drinking, cooking, and basic sanitation.”

The opening line of Judge Toska’s statement reads, “This case is about the fundamental right to have access to sufficient water and the right to human dignity.” He further states, “It is undeniable the applicants need more water than 25 litres per person per day and that the respondents are able, within their available resources to meet this need.”

“Judge Toska has set a resounding precedent for the constitutional right to water and has highlighted the value of the research and analysis we do for the public good,” said Gleick.

Based in Oakland, California, the Pacific Institute is a nonpartisan research institute that works to create a healthier planet and sustainable communities. Through interdisciplinary research and partnering with stakeholders, the Institute produces solutions that advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity—in California, nationally, and internationally.