Clean Water as a Human Right!

Implications for Project Management



By David Pells

Managing Editor, PMWJ

Addison, Texas, USA


On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly approved a motion making access to clean water a basic human right.  Although the motion was non binding on member countries, and 41 countries did not vote for the resolution, it was nonetheless significant.  Access to clean water is now considered a human right, along with access to food and a non-violent environment.  So what does this have to do with project management?  With nearly a billion people without access to clean water and nearly 2.5 billion without clean toilets and wastewater treatment, for one thing it means massive investment in water related projects in coming years.

But there are many other considerations as well, for example, the economics, politics and social impact of water-related projects in some parts of the world.  Even in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere, where water is generally more plentiful, there are water shortages – for example, in California where agricultural use of available water is now resulting in potential problems.

At the same time, on a planet that is 80% covered with water, it seems ironic that there are shortages.  The old adage, “water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” comes to mind.  So what are the issues?

I have been thinking about water off and on since reading the announcement about the UN vote in late July.  It seems that there has been nothing written about this in the project management field, and very little in the press, even though access to clean water is widely recognized as a global social and economic issue.  In some countries, the lack of clean water is already at a crisis level.

I am not an engineer, scientist or expert on water or wastewater topics.  Nevertheless, I have had some experience in this industry.  One of my first jobs as a teenager, summer work after high school and before leaving home for university, I worked for the city engineer in my small home town.  He was responsible for maintaining all city utilities and infrastructure, including roads, lighting, wastewater (sewers) and water system.  I learned to mix chemicals for the water plant, clean and maintain the sewage treatment plant, and lay pipes and fire hydrants in a new residential development.  I have never forgotten those experiences over 40 years ago.

More recently during 1993-1995, I represented two Texas-based water technology companies that were pursuing project opportunities in Russia and the former Soviet Union.  One company was an engineering firm that specialized in the design of water and wastewater treatments plants, and in solutions for those types of projects.  The second company sold equipment for water and wastewater plants, including pumps, valves, piping, etc.  On their behalf, I met with Vodocanal executives in Moscow, Sochi and St. Petersburg, toured big water and sewage plants, discussed projects to build new facilities, and learned a great deal.  I learned that nearly every Russian town and city needed new or better water treatment facilities.  I also learned the hard way, becoming quite ill several times, that water borne diseases occur even in modern cities and hotels.

As I have gotten older, it seems that I drink more water.  And when I am traveling, I have become much more careful to have water with me, whether traveling by auto, air, train or taxi.  I have become more aware of the body’s need for water, both for survival and better health.  Water is a personal need, a very personal topic, not just an industrial, economic or social issue.  It deserves more attention.  Here in North America, and I think in most fully developed countries, water is taken for granted.  It’s considered free or cheap, because it is generally readily available.

This is a huge mistake, in my opinion.  So this month I want to discuss some aspects of the clean water issue that may often be overlooked, or unknown to too many in the project management profession.

Some Issues and Perspectives

Here are some issues that are discussed in more detail below:

  • The Human Rights Aspect
  • Global Demand – Water Projects as a Growth Field for PM
  • Water Projects as a Base Global Industry
  • Water Projects in Economic Development Programmes
  • Water Projects for Emergencies and Natural Disasters
  • Industrial Wastewater Treatment
  • The Supply Chain – Projects in Related Industries
  • Clean Water Technologies – R&D Projects
  • Complexity Issues – The non-technical factors
  • Economics of Water – other uses for water (industry, etc.)
  • The Politics of Water
  • The Ultimate Solution – Water & Energy
  • Drinking Water for Your Project Team
  • The Water Tower – An American Icon

Qualification: this paper is not a fully researched treatise but rather includes my personal observations and opinions.  If I err with facts, I think they will be close enough and the message should be clear.  Water is a huge global topic and we need to take it more seriously.


To read entire paper, click here


Editor’s note 1: Although this paper was written more than seven years ago, the topic seems more relevant than ever.  All of the issues addressed still apply; if anything, the problems are more acute as climate change has led to more drought-stricken regions around the world.  And here in the United States, the recently headlined lead-tainted water system in Flint, Michigan has been a disaster, with serious local health, economic, legal and political repercussions.  The project management profession can play a unique role in solving these and other global problems.  Hopefully this paper will stimulate more thinking and action in that regard.

Editor’s note 2: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English.  Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright.  This paper was originally published in the December 2010 edition of PM World Today.  It is republished here with the author’s permission.

About the Author

David L. Pells

Managing Editor, PMWJ
Managing Director, PMWL



David L. Pells is Managing Editor of the PM World Journal (www.pmworldjournal.net) and Managing Director of the PM World Library (www.pmworldlibrary.net). David is an internationally recognized leader in the field of professional project management with more than 35 years of experience on a variety of programs and projects, including engineering, construction, energy, defense, transit, technology and nuclear security, and project sizes ranging from thousands to billions of dollars. He occasionally acts as project management advisor for U.S. national laboratories and international programs, and currently serves as an independent advisor for a major U.S. national nuclear security program.

David Pells has been an active professional leader in the United States since the 1980s, serving on the board of directors of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) twice.  He was founder and chair of the Global Project Management Forum (1995-2000), an annual meeting of leaders of PM associations from around the world. David was awarded PMI’s Person of the Year award in 1998 and Fellow Award, PMI’s highest honor, in 1999. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Project Management (APM) in the UK; Project Management Associates (PMA – India); and Russian Project Management Association.  Since 2010 he is an honorary member of the Project Management Association of Nepal.

Former managing editor of PM World Today, he is the creator, editor and publisher of the PM World Journal (since 2012).  David has a BA in Business Administration from the University of Washington and an MBA from Idaho State University in the USA.  He has published widely and spoken at conferences and events worldwide.  David lives near Dallas, Texas and can be contacted at [email protected] 

To see other works by David Pells, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/david-l-pells