Jonathan Lim

Advancing Water Resource Management through Space Applications

The integration of a human rights-based approach (HRBA) across the use of space applications in advancing integrated water resource management (IWRM) provides a means for governments to fulfill their ongoing obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. Access to water and sanitation are recognized by the international community as a fundamental human right, one which impacts upon the core nature of associated basic rights across every individual.

As highlighted during the 1992 Rio Summit, the Agenda 21 Document clarified the emergence of IWRM as a process which prioritizes measures which address pressing issues over scarcity, destruction, and pollution of freshwater resources through the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources. Herein, IWRM maximizes the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.

HRBA is dictated by the 2003 UN Development group’s Common Understanding document, providing a consistent approach to common programming processes at the global, regional, and national level. The utility of this approach lies in its broadly endorsed normative and legal framework which sets minimum standards for governance, and clarifies the rights and duties of governments and rights holders.


The lack of access to safe, sufficient and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene facilities has a devastating effect on the health, dignity and prosperity of populations, and carries significant consequences for the realization of human rights. While not explicitly referenced across the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), or the International Covenant on Cultural, Economic and Social Rights (ICESCR) – it has been recognized that the right to life (RTL) extolled under Article 3 bears a direct connection to the right to water (RTW), wherein one cannot exist without the other.

This contention was further reinforced in November 2002 when the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No. 15 (GC15) on the right to water. Article I.1 states that “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights“. GC15 also defined RTW as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses – placing expectations upon states to adhere to these requirements in fulfilling RTW.

Finally, in July 2010, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 64/292, explicitly recognizing the RTW as derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, and acknowledging that clean drinking water and sanitation represent essential elements to the realization of all human rights. The effect of this resolution served to highlight the existence of this right as contained in existing human rights treaties, and therefore legally binding upon UN member states.

Space and Water

In December 2018, UNOOSA launched the Space4Water portal to promote the use of space technology for sustainable water management. Predicated upon the essential role of water for supporting life and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the initiative serves as a platform to gather information, strengthen partnerships related to space-based information for water accessibility, and achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

It is argued that all water resource management programs and frameworks which utilize and integrate space as part of its process must prioritize the realization of human rights. These spans both avenues which lie at the intersection between international human rights law (IHRL) and international space law (ISL).

Firstly, considerations surrounding the use of space applications in support of terrestrial human rights – pertaining to the use of satellites, earth observation technologies, and emergent Satellite Weather Modification Systems (SWMS). Secondly, concerning the extension of terrestrial human rights to human activities across the final frontier – pertaining to essentiality of water as a resource for basic human existence and survival, and the broader utility of water in supporting environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS) and for rocket propulsion.

The guidelines and restrictions surrounding use of such space technologies must advance a supportive and habitable environment conducive to ensuring the human rights of a nation’s citizens – striking a balance between the commercial uses of such technologies versus its potential for rights enforcement. Further, the roles of institutions which retain control over the use of such technology must be considered, given their relevance in monitoring, complying, and fulfilling IHRL values and principles. Finally, management instruments surrounding such technologies must enable and help decision-makers to make rational and informed choices in their use, as conducive and aligned to human rights values and principles.

Sustainable Development Goal 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation for All

The use of space technology in meeting the water related aspects of SDG 6 serves to promote the capacity of governments to meet their obligation to respect, protect and fulfill concerning the existing RTW. This right is detailed throughout the UDHR, ICESCR, CEDAW, and CRC – recognizing the resource as indispensable for leading a life in human dignity, and a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights. Everyone possesses the right to sufficient, safe, acceptable, and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. Where the international human rights system has established water as a recognized human right, this provides opportunities to streamline global and national water governance and provide coherence in meeting basic standards conducive to human health and dignity. Such must be measured across the established standards of accessibility, adaptability, and accessibility.

Firstly, examples geared toward promoting the accessibility of water resources through space applications address improving the capacity for all peoples to reach, understand, and use space technologies to improve their lives. This is highlighted using smartphones and mobile phone applications to improve basic access to satellite data and services for 20,000 farmers under the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR). Herein, the PCRWR integrates NASA satellite data for meteorological purposes, providing publicly accessible information on current and future weather conditions, and advisories on how to water certain crops, for the purpose of helping Pakistani farmers avoid the issue of overwatering their crops. This feeds into target SGD-6.4, promoting measures which substantially increases water-use efficiency across all sectors, and reduces the number of people suffering from water scarcity.

Secondly, examples which seek to advance the adaptability of water resources through space applications concern tailoring water management programs in a manner which recognizes and accommodates the local context. This is demonstrated through measures to adapt remote sensing technologies to boost water resource management, achieved through the scalability of remote sensing products and services on offer to various African countries. This is predicated on differing requirements concerning the accuracy, timeliness, and spatial representativeness of information acquired through remote sensing. This enables local governments to select the most appropriate and affordable solution to best improve water resource management in their region. This relates to target SGD-6.b, in supporting measures which facilitate and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.

Third, examples seeking to further the acceptability of water resources through space applications concerns measures to ensure that remote sensing services are ethically and culturally appropriate for people from different backgrounds – regardless of race, gender, class, ethnicity, disability or other identities and backgrounds. This is highlighted by the integration of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) into secondary education across different countries, with schools in South Africa being limited by challenges – including inadequate resources and limited exposure of students to GIS’s practical uses, including for IWRM. This is contrasted by the Queensland Government’s creation of a spatial educator’s toolkit for secondary education, which educates students on a variety of GIS related issues – including matters relating to hydrology, meteorology, and water management. This relates to target SGD-6.b, in supporting measures which facilitate and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.


Improving the accessibility of water resources through space applications requires several measures. First, boosting the coverage of such technologies – to achieve the universal coverage of such IWRM tools and preclude the possibility of discrimination of any kind, especially individuals belonging to the most disadvantaged groups. Secondly, to address issues of affordability to such technologies – which may be addressed through the creation of contributory schemes, or creation of a more equitable sharing economy. Third, to support participation and information – whereby the beneficiaries of these technologies and services must be able to participate in their administration, and have the right to seek, receive and impart information on entitlements in a clear and transparent manner.

Improving the adaptability of space applications for IWRM requires additional outreach across local communities, distributing information about such technologies and services. Such communication should be adapted to reach the most vulnerable segments of society by using channels such as radio/TV broadcasts, and be available in languages used by minority and indigenous groups. Improving adaptability bears direct relevance to the increased effectiveness and efficiency of any IWRM measures undertaken using space applications.

Improving the acceptability of space applications for IWRM requires sensitizing the applicable technology, services and tools to account for the multiple forms of discrimination that might arise concerning race, language, religion or otherwise. Herein, additional measures must assess the asymmetries of power that exist between and among communities, concerning access to technology and management of local water resources. This may be conducted through broad consultations with the respective rights-holder groups. Special attention must be paid to groups that suffer from structural discrimination as a matter of priority in the design, implementation and monitoring of GIS services for IWRM – to meet obligations entailed within various human rights instruments.


The application of HRBA upon IWRM therefore bears relevance to the use of space applications in improving access to water and sanitation, promoting the importance of human rights values and principles in outer space affairs, and enabling the space-water-human rights communities to collectively work toward universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

A continuing and growing emphasis upon the utility and wide reach of human rights across outer space applications will play a vital role in protecting vulnerable groups from abuse, advancing sustainable practices in the sharing and use of water resources, and safeguarding international peace and stability through the promotion and realization of water security.

Ongoing scientific debate and the management of water resources must integrate the foundational perspectives offered by IHRL. HRBA places the interests and rights of the individual as the core focus for any policy decisions surrounding water and the use of space applications – with government actions tempered by the need to respect, protect, and fulfil the individual right to health, wellbeing and dignity. The integration of HRBA is therefore vital in the determination of a broadly applicable and relevant solution – based upon the universal, inherent, and inalienable characteristics of human rights.

A human rights-based approach to Space Traffic Management

The international implementation of space traffic management measures, aligned with human rights values and principles, must be prioritized to improve the safety and sustainability of human activities in outer space. Recognizing the growing commercialization and democratization of outer space, the growing relevance of Space4All as a global agenda advocates for the promotion of a diverse, inclusive, and sustainable minded approach to international space policy making. The creation of STM measures, mindful of human rights, provides the most appropriate means to promote safety and sustainability, and to best-balance between the challenges of over versus under-regulation.

The prevailing definition of space traffic management (STM) is that of technical and regulatory provisions promoting: 1) safe access to outer space; 2) the conducting of operations in outer space; and 3) the return of space objects from outer space, free from external interference. Accordingly, the continuing absence of a definitive STM system or framework across internationals space law (ISL) agreements presents a significant danger to future space development. Herein the absence of consensus on the standards governing the launching and operation of space-based assets has created an environment adverse to sustainable development.

Human rights represent universal, inherent, and indivisible rights possessed by all individuals by virtue of their existence as human beings – regardless of sex, ethnicity, religion, or any other status. States possess the ongoing obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the human rights of their citizens under international law. The utility of human rights is centered upon the health, dignity, and well-being of the individual, providing for fundamental rights and freedoms considered essential to the individual’s ability to achieve to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The basis for State compliance with International Human Rights Law (IHRL) within ISL jurisprudence is provided under Article 1 of the UN Charter, while the extraterritorial applicability of IHRL is provided under Article III of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) – where activities conducted by State parties must be carried out “in accordance with international law, including the [UN Charter]”. States are therefore challenged to establish precedent and outline what manner of IHRL is relevant and applicable in the outer space context. Further, States are compelled to act responsibly in outer space under Article IV of the OST – bearing “international responsibility” for the actions of their private entities in outer space.

Consequently, the developing intersection between IHRL and space affairs presents unique opportunities for the international community to manage STM and its associated issues (i.e. space debris, light pollution) from a human rights-based approach (HRBA). The promotion of a HRBA across scientific, exploratory, and general human spaceflight activities bears relevance for promoting and protecting human rights within STM systems. HRBA is outlined within the 2003 UN Development group’s Common Understanding document – providing a consistent approach to common programming processes at the global, regional, and national level. This mandates that:

  1. All programs concerning development cooperation and technical assistance should prioritize the realization of human rights;
  2. That human rights instruments should guide development cooperation and programming;
  3. That development cooperation should contribute to duty bearer’s capacity to meet obligations of rights-holders.

The utility of human rights lies in its broadly endorsed normative and legal framework which sets minimum standards for governance, and clarifies the rights and duties of States and rights holders. Consequently, the guidelines and restrictions surrounding STM systems/frameworks must advance a political and policy environment conducive to ensuring the human rights of a State’s citizens – managing the commercial use of space-based technologies versus its potential for rights enforcement.

The application of a human rights-based approach to STM systems/frameworks provides the impetus for States to act responsibly and collectively regulate the outer space environment for common benefit. This pertains to the environmental risks and sustainability issues associated with the increasing degree of debris and traffic in space – encompassing individual safety, freedom of navigation, and environmental pollution. Such issues within STM may be addressed by States adhering to their obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights across several key areas.

Firstly, the Right to Life (RTL) – providing that every human being has the inherent right to life, that this right shall be protected at law, and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their life. This has been interpreted as requiring governments to take appropriate measures to safeguard life under law, and proactively protecting the lives of those at risk. The European Convention on Human Rights further outlines the duty of states to take appropriate steps to safeguard lives by: A) establishing a legal framework; and B) addressing life-threatening environmental risks. Any devised STM system/framework must therefore uphold the safety and sanctity of human life as its foremost concern, and assume measures to protect human life and avoid harms.

Second, the Right to a Healthy Environment (RHE) – adopting a human-centric approach to environmental issues, recognising that without a healthy environment “we are unable to fulfil our aspirations or even live at a level commensurate with minimum standards of human dignity.” IHRL has recognized that RHE represents a key element in enabling people to lead a healthy life. Any devised STM system/framework must therefore discourage or prohibit measures which cause such damage to the space environment, which may prejudice the health and survival of human spaceflight participants.

Third, the Right to participate in Cultural Life (RCL) – guaranteeing the right of everyone to access, participate in and enjoy culture, cultural heritage, and cultural expressions. This encompasses the right of peoples to enjoy their own culture, to take part in cultural life, and enjoy the benefit of scientific progress. Any devised STM system/framework must therefore integrate concerns relating to space debris, considered as either historical artefacts or as tied into a culture’s heritage. Further, the developing right to dark and quiet skies as a cultural right may impact upon the volume of traffic and orbital route of space-based assets.

Noting the universal, inherent, and indivisible nature of human rights, the application of HRBA to STM facilitates numerous benefits conducive to the development of a safe and sustainable outer space environment. This includes ensuring that people have their basic needs met; that vulnerable groups are protected; maintaining the rule of law; the promotion of environmentally responsible practices; and holding governments accountable to their international obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights. It is therefore envisioned that the integration of a HRBA in the formation and international implementation of STM systems/frameworks will prove conducive to the evolving and exponential pace of human activities across the final frontier.

A Human Rights Approach in Space to address climate challenges

The intersection of space applications and international space law (ISL) provides a unique environment for the realization of a governance framework, relevant to both individual States and the international community, addressing climate change challenges across local communities. Accordingly, the fulfillment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) can be supported through the development of corresponding human rights principles, advancing the right to clean air and the right to a healthy environment (RHE).

The role of space applications (space technologies and space law) in developing RHE has long provided the means for implementing robust policy changes in environmental governance. Space provides policymakers with the scientific foundations to support strategic decisions, operationalize environmental initiatives, and enforce adherence with climate change initiatives under SDG-13.

SDG-13 calls upon the international community to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”. Herein, the realization of a human rights-centric approach may support target SDG-13.2 – calling for the integration of climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning – where space applications can be leveraged as a supportive tool for community-level human rights enforcement. Such an approach directly addresses environmental impacts on the life of communities and individuals, promotes the rule of law in environmental practice, and broadens economic and social rights in embracing elements of the public interest in environmental protection.

Conversely, the realization of human rights values and principles can help to address broader climate change initiatives. The rising threat of climate change has facilitated an emergent realization on the critical relationship between human rights and the environment, where the difficulty of populations to access clean air, soil or water has necessitated the use of space applications to support the fulfilment of basic human rights. Where human rights are inherent, inalienable, and universal; the use of space applications in support of human rights provides a compelling blueprint in addressing climate change across local communities.


SDG-13 urges governments and communities to combat climate change and its impacts. Accordingly, climate change represents an issue of international concern, wherein space technologies have governed terrestrial affairs through climate monitoring, energy utilization, resource management, and agriculture (UNOOSA, 2020). The importance of space applications in fulfilling the SDGs are demonstrated under Article 76 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, wherein the international community voiced support for developing countries access to “Earth observation and geospatial information”.

Earth observation technologies have elevated the supervision and enforcement of economic, social and cultural rights under the SDGs – supporting international efforts to observe and monitor climatic conditions, conduct weather forecasting, communicate climate-related research and data, enhance disaster management, and support search and rescue operations. Satellites provide evidence of climate change, supply scientists with the data to understand the global ecosystem, and present decision-makers with information critical to policy formation (ESA, 2018) (UNOOSA, 2018).

Acknowledging that outer space activities must benefit all member states, regardless of their development level (UN, 2019), the uniform enforcement of international climate change standards through space applications is achievable under the international human rights framework. Ongoing development of RHE brings together the environmental dimensions of civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights, and protects the core elements of the natural environment that enable a life of dignity. Diverse ecosystems and clean water, air, and soils are indispensable for human health and security (HRW, 2018).

International Space Law and Environmental Law – Human Rights

Space technologies in the context of human rights have often been highlighted in the context of international humanitarian law – covering the monitoring of interstate civil and political conflicts. Indeed, Satellite imagery has been used by Human Rights Watch to monitor and document the destruction of residential property in Myanmar – highlighting ongoing human rights violations against the ethnic Rohingya population (HRW, 2020). Herein, Earth observation technologies provide the evidentiary basis for international action and human rights enforcement.

Concerning ISL, the preamble of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) outlines the intent of the instrument to facilitate the use of outer space for “peaceful purposes”. Further, the “due regard” environmental protection clause under Article IX of the OST calls for the avoidance of “harmful contamination” resulting from human activities. In interpreting these articles, attention must be directed to Article 31 of the 1969 Vienna Convention, which specifies an interpretation of the phrase in accordance with its ordinary meaning (Hans-Joachim, 2001). Accordingly, the absence of codified human rights principles across the core space law agreements enables the abuse of and contempt of terrestrial human rights – given their sole focus on the outer space environment (ESA, 2020).

Bridging this intersection between ISL, environmental law, and human rights is achievable under Article III of the OST, which provides that States parties conduct their activities “in accordance with international law” – challenging States to draw upon the relevance and applicability of international environmental law and human rights law. Consequently, the applicability of the ISL agreements within a terrestrial context may be furthered from a human rights interpretation.

Utilizing space for “peaceful purposes” elicits the positive general duty to minimize humanity’s overall environmental interference across all domains – a contention mirrored within international law under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty (SAT, 2020). In interpreting Article IX, the applicable law includes both international norms applicable to outer space environment and the rules of international law at large (Hobe, 2017), drawing upon international environmental treaties (i.e. UNFCCC, Paris Agreement).

Finally, the relationship between human rights and the environment is acknowledged under international law. Since the 1972 Stockholm Conference the international community has acknowledged that procedural human rights – including the rights to assembly, expression, information – are critical to environmental protection. Additionally, in a 2019 Report to the UN General Assembly, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd highlighted this relationship in the existence of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. It is recognized that environmental issues, such as pollution and climate change, can affect the full-realization of human rights – including the right to water and health (ECHR, 2020).

Case Examples – Human Rights

Addressing climate change across local communities, by advancing the realization of RHE through the use of space applications, promotes the development of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment integral to the full enjoyment of a wide-range of human rights.

Firstly, satellite observation data has been utilized to support local climate change and sustainability efforts – in the prediction and management of forest fires in the Amazon jungle (Mataveli, 2017), and in protecting the Amazon’s indigenous populations from various initiatives to develop the region (Hettler, 2018). These efforts have limited the destructive scale of human development, contributed to the preservation of intact forests and their biodiversity, and maintained the importance of the Amazon as a significant global carbon sink – thereby mitigating the effects of climate change.

Secondly, satellite observation has promoted poverty alleviation through the encouragement of sustainable practices by farmers and local communities (Edwards, 2017). Satellite data has heightened the ability of local authorities to map the demographics of a region and manage natural resources sustainably in Kenya through enhanced urban planning measures (Palminteri, 2019). Space applications may thus be leveraged to combat climate change by reducing the overall carbon footprint of local communities.

Finally, ongoing efforts to consolidate data on air quality and pollution through satellite observation has been observed in Southeast Asia under the Global Platform on Air Quality and Health. Herein, satellite-derived measurements of PM2.5 concentrations through the use of Aerosol Optical Depth overlay technology has driven sustainable improvements in air quality (AQLI, 2019), and has factored into legal proceedings against the government by local communities (The Canberra Times, 2019).


The utilization of space applications to realize SDG-13 may therefore be advanced through a human rights-based approach, where the supporting regional and local efforts to realize RHE strengthens the universal implementation of measures addressing climate change and sustainable environmental governance. Likewise, the realization of SDG-13 through the use of space applications supports the monitoring, development, and realization of individual human rights. Accordingly, the integration of climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning will benefit from the following measures.

Firstly, IGOs must encourage broader multilateral transparency building and confidence initiatives, focused on exploring the intersection between outer space, the environment, and human rights. This includes amending the OST to consider environmental measures advanced under the 1992 Rio Declaration – including incorporating environmental consultation clauses, and the application of the “precautionary principle” to the outer space context (Chung, 2017).

Secondly, ongoing international sustainability efforts will benefit from the establishment of a UN treaty-based body dedicated to addressing the intersection between human rights and outer space. This includes appointment of a special rapporteur to examine, monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights relating to outer space affairs.

Third, UNOOSA must support the localized development of sustainable practices, in educating community organizations on the utility of space applications to address climate change through the advancement of human rights under RHE. Where community organizations are well-positioned to proactively promote rights through individual and systemic advocacy, they also exist as the primary means of addressing climate change locally. It is concluded that space applications, including Earth observation and advanced analytics, have thus provided policymakers and local communities with new tools to develop and protect human rights under RHE – by enabling new forms of advocacy, accountability, and action (Zolli, 2018).

Recognizing the mutually supporting relationship between space applications and human rights under RHE is integral to addressing climate change across local communities, providing a universal standard that holds governments accountable to their citizens and the international community.