Access to water, in sufficient quantities and of sufficient quality is vital for human health. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (in General Comment 15, drafted 2002) argued that access to water was a condition for the enjoyment of the right to an adequate standard of living, inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and thus a human right. On 28 July 2010 the United Nations General Assembly declared safe and clean drinking water and sanitation a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights. This paper charts the international legal development of the right to water and its relevance to discussions surrounding the growth of unconventional energy and its heavy reliance on water. We consider key data from the country with arguably the most mature and extensive industry, the USA, and highlight the implications for water usage and water rights. We conclude that, given the weight of testimony of local people from our research, along with data from scientific literature, non-governmental organization (NGO) and other policy reports, that the right to water for residents living near fracking sites is likely to be severely curtailed. Even so, from the data presented here, we argue that the major issue regarding water use is the shifting of the resource from society to industry and the demonstrable lack of supply-side price signal that would demand that the industry reduce or stabilize its water demand per unit of energy produced. Thus, in the US context alone, there is considerable evidence that the human right to water will be seriously undermined by the growth of the unconventional oil and gas industry, and given its spread around the globe this could soon become a global human rights issue.
Keywords: extreme energy; human rights impacts; hydraulic fracturing; right to water; unconventional energy; “fracking”.