Access to water for residents of Delhi, India’s unplanned communities is already dire — and it’s likely to get much worse because of climate change, concludes a new report from the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. The report, which is set to be released on September 20 to coincide with the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit in New York, shows how policies by Delhi leadership have made it more difficult for some lower-income residents to obtain water, and argued that governments, including those of richer countries, must respond to prevent the situation from getting worse.

Working with the Center for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO focused on addressing global inequality, and informed by analysts on the ground in Delhi, the clinic’s students and leaders began the project in 2019, hoping to explore new ways to address climate injustice.

“We noticed that a lot of human rights organizations have made statements that climate change is going to affect human rights, particularly in communities that are marginalized, but few had been very specific about why that is or how that is,” says Aminta Ossom ’09, lecturer on law and clinical instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic.

The project began with extensive stakeholder research in the natural and social sciences and interviews with experts and affected individuals, says Sarah Tansey ’21, a former clinical student.

The team timed the release of its report to this week’s UN gathering to show attendees how real people are impacted by policies governments make, says Ossom. “Our idea is to bring the communities that are most affected by climate change to the forefront, because they tend to be discussed in the abstract in these conferences.”

In an interview with Harvard Law Today, Ossom, Tansey, and three clinic alumni shared why water is such a critical — and threatened — resource in Delhi, how the problem disproportionately impacts women, and what governments must do to respond.

Harvard Law Today: What is the report about?

Aminta Ossom: The report is about the unequal enjoyment of water in Delhi, India, and how that will be amplified by climate change. What we’re concluding is that the Indian and Delhi governments have made policy decisions that have resulted in the unequal availability, accessibility, and quality of water, as between low-income residents, most of whom reside in informal settlements that we’re calling unplanned colonies, and wealthier households, which are serviced by in-home taps. The fact of having an in-home tap is a foundational factor that causes inequality in terms of enjoyment of water, and that advantage is amplified by the impacts of climate change in terms of water scarcity and water degradation.

We also have made a point about the responsibility of foreign governments, especially wealthy countries that have contributed the most historically to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. We conclude that they haven’t lived up to the commitments that they’ve made to finance mitigation and adaptation in the places and communities that are most affected.

HLT: The report indicates that part of the problem stems from the government of Delhi’s hesitance to extend water lines to the city’s unplanned communities. Why is that?

Ossom: There are different factors in play. One of the things that we learned from experts is that there’s a fear that if the government extends pipelines to settlements that that it considers illegal, they’re validating a right to housing in that area. It was interesting, because we talked to an expert about a court decision that happened in Mumbai where that same question came up, and the high court there actually disentangled the right to water from needing to have the right to legal tenure of your location.

The other thing we explored is that a lot of government resources and positive government developments tend to accrue to communities that are politically powerful, because they’re able to influence policies towards their benefit. And sometimes the interests of either industry or more wealthy communities end up harming lower income communities. For example, a decision not to assess higher water tariffs that are connected to one’s consumption level, which would generate more taxes for universal water services, benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

HLT: Humans need water to drink, cook, bathe, and many other important uses. How else does unequal access to water affect Delhiites?

Krupa Appleton J.D./Ph.D. ’24: One of the dimensions we were looking at my semester was how access to water impacts gender disparately. In a lot of these settings, this was really an autonomy and agency issue for women, since they were the ones typically in charge of collecting the water for their families. They had to negotiate their lives around being able to gather water and use water because they were responsible for household tasks like cooking and cleaning. And so, the longer it took to get water, the less time they had to do chores or other things they wanted or needed to do. Girls might end up needing to miss school. There are also downstream ramifications if they fall short of their household duties, which can create family issues, so it has social consequences as well as health consequences.

Katie Super ’23: So many of us who live in regions where we have easy access to water take it for granted. One of the things I found myself experiencing while I was working on the project was just an awareness of how much water that I use in a day. Drinking is obviously incredibly important, especially when it’s hot outside, and in Delhi, it gets really hot, and heat waves are increasing, but I’m also talking about things like every time I would flush a toilet, or like wash my dishes, or just all of these basic things that use actually such a high volume of water. Water is one of those things that’s so fundamental that it can sometimes be difficult to fully articulate all the different parts of life it affects for all human beings.

HLT: How does — and will — climate change make unequal access to water worse in Delhi?

Ossom: Climate change both affects the quantity of water that’s available to the different water supply channels and the quality of that water. When the heat rises, the water reservoirs get lower, and that negatively impacts the water pressure that comes through the taps. It also creates greater water demand, because communities are consuming more water to deal with the heat. That impact on demand and supply at the same time ultimately affects the cost of water, both in terms of getting it if you need to pay for it, but also the opportunity cost of retrieving it if you need to retrieve it as well. Climate change also impacts this particular area of India through increased high-intensity rainstorms. That can sometimes be confusing, because a lot of people will say, “There’s actually more rain, so why isn’t there more water?” But these storms are usually shorter but more intense, which puts a lot of strain on the infrastructure that collects and treats water.

HLT: The report concludes that the situation in Delhi is, or could be, an international human rights violation. Could you expand on that?

Ossom: Governments that sign on to the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights commit themselves to a number of things. One of the rights covered by the treaty is the right to adequate water, meaning that it is equally available and equally accessible, and of good quality. The treaty obliges governments to protect water to ensure access isn’t eroded either by a third party or by other factors that are at play. Another obligation is to fulfill the right to water. A lot of times governments will say that they have different levels of resources, so they can’t be held to the same standard, but that is already built into international human rights law. Governments that have lesser resources are not be expected to have the same level of access as other governments, but they need to be gradually getting towards a level of access that provides everyone enough water for life, health, and hygiene. They have to show that they’re taking concrete steps to get to that level, and that there isn’t structural inequality or disparate impacts between different communities.

“Part of the goal of this research was to look beyond the fact that this is a breach of the law and get to why this might be happening and what people and governments can practically do about it.”

Sarah Tansey ’21

HLT: What does your report say about the responsibility of governments — those of Delhi, India, and rich nations — to address this issue?

Super: This is ultimately a very complex problem — one that requires a lot of different authorities to take responsibility. First, there is obviously an international responsibility to provide resources for better adaptation measures for communities who are going to be bearing the brunt of impacts from climate change, as opposed to focusing solely on mitigation, because we’re at the point where, whether we like it or not, there are a lot of people who are going to be suffering the impacts of erratic weather patterns and lack of access to water. Because there have been unequal patterns of development and wealth accumulation, certain countries have more financial resources to dedicate to those efforts than others, and those countries are also ones that have historically contributed more to greenhouse gas emissions, industrial development, and environmental destruction. But there is also an important role for the government of India and the regional government of Delhi, because even if these funds are allocated, they need to be put to use in an effective way and used to facilitate access in a way that’s equitable, that gets the resources to the people who need them most.

Ossom: I also feel in international climate discussions, there tends to be a blame game between governments about who is responsible for taking action, and it creates a stalemate. And it’s true that there needs to be action at the international level, but things also need to happen at the national and local levels, too. We really wanted to be sure we showed responsibilities at all levels, in order to be very specific about what concrete things different governments can do to alleviate the harms that are happening to particular communities.

HLT: From the student perspective, what did your work on this report mean to your law school education?

Sarah Tansey ’21: I appreciated that we started off with a high-level assertion that climate change is a human rights issue. It was sort of a truism, but it was great to be able to dive in and say: Okay, but what exactly does that mean? It was really useful to get practical and try to understand discrete impacts in a specific area. In law school, “getting practical” often means, what’s your litigation strategy? And that’s just not as useful when there are forces working at the national or even international level. I appreciated that part of the goal of this research was to look beyond the argument that this is a breach of the law and get to why this might be happening and what people and governments can practically do about it.

For more information on the International Human Rights Clinic’s and “When the Water Runs Dry: Human Rights, Climate Change & Deepening Water Inequality in Delhi, India,” visit their website.

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