Mars: The New Frontier in Water Regulation Georgetown Environmental Law Review

Mars TitlecardMars: The New Frontier in Water Regulation

By Princess Fuller, Staff Contributor

Water scarcity on Earth is not a new phenomenon. The facts blatantly demonstrate this, with 884 million people not having access to potable water and 2.6 billion individuals lacking access to proper plumbing.[1] Combined with the exponential growth of the human population over the last century (from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion, with an expected 9 billion persons by 2050), the math starts to look rather bleak when it comes to water resources for generations.[2] Some statisticians have gone so far as to estimate that in 2050, “one-fourth of the world population will live in countries with chronic water shortage, mostly in the Middle East, Africa, and parts of India and China.”[3]

Consequently, when NASA announced last month that it had found evidence of water on Mars, this was not only a huge milestone within the scientific community but rather a hope for humanity’s future. Contrary to popular opinion, NASA did not find babbling brooks and oceans all over.[4] What NASA actually discovered was evidence that Mars undergoes seasonal changes (similar to Earth) indicated by recurring slope lineae (RSL), various, hydrated minerals creating different slopes where water flowed in a prior season.[5] Thus far, RSLs have been found near the Martian equator. However, the Curiosity rover and its supervising scientists are still attempting to identify the water source (e.g. “groundwater, melting frost”, etc.).[6] With more exploration, the likelihood of water being found increases, with NASA scheduled to send a rover to Mars in 2020 that will be better able to examine the surface for the presence of water.[7]

Given the genuine expectation that humanity will eventually colonize Mars, it would seem only right and fair that legislative, international bodies begin to build a legal framework to ensure that water on Mars is regulated, so that there’s no concern for contamination and future scarcity.

Several NASA officials seem to agree that this new “discovery bolsters prospects for the survival of astronauts who may one day visit Mars and for future human colonies”; John Grunsfield, NASA associate administrator, believes “the resources are there”.[8] Given the current state of aquatic affairs on Earth, it may not be such a far-fetched idea to attempt to regulate water and its use on Mars, prior to human settlement. Within the legal community, even though there is no unanimous belief that water is a human right, the majority of scholars and political officials agree that “the right to maintain access to existing water supplies [is] necessary … Where the water system on which people rely is contaminated, the government must act to ensure that an alternative source of clean water is provided.”[9] Given the genuine expectation that humanity will eventually colonize Mars, it would seem only right and fair that legislative, international bodies begin to build a legal framework to ensure that water on Mars is regulated, so that there’s no concern for contamination and future scarcity.

However, water rights on planet earth are still rather flawed, and if governing bodies have been unsuccessful in this realm, why and how would efforts on Mars be enforceable?

From a scientific perspective, NASA is already highly concerned with not contaminating water sources on Mars.[10] Specifically, scientists at NASA are concerned that microbes from Earth traveled on the Curiosity rover to Mars and the aquatic environment there may not be able to effectively combat these foreign substances if they prove to be harmful to the Martian ecosystem.[11] As a result, scientists have not allowed Curiosity near the RSLs, only allowing the rover to take photos from afar.[12] Cassie Conley, planetary protection officer at NASA, has been tasked with safeguarding Mars (or any planets NASA may choose to visit) “from contamination by Earth-based microorganisms.”[13] Given the concern and due diligence NASA has undertaken, it may be that laws and policy instruments are not needed until human populations arrive – a statement that only considers the American legal tradition. When considering the environmental regime of other, major players within the space exploring community, the need for water regulation and its uses on Mars becomes even more prevalent.

With that in mind, it may be in the best interest of mankind if scientists and international, legislative bodies begin to consider the environmental and legal implications of water regulation on Mars.

However, water rights on planet earth are still rather flawed, and if governing bodies have been unsuccessful in this realm, why and how would efforts on Mars be enforceable? For example, in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.”[14] However, despite this resolution, there has often been either a deliberate lack of enforcement, or a huge time gap before non-binding, ratified, international treaties become reality.[15] Additionally, there’s a constant debate between the political and economic sectors over whether water is a commodity to be sold for profit, or a human right, as Justinian in 529 C.E. articulated: “By the law of nature these things are common to all mankind, the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.”[16] Despite the questionability of water being adequately legislated on Earth, scholarly trends indicate that water is a fundamental human right because water is necessary to life.[17]

 

Despite all the talk of water on Mars, according to Ashwin Vasavada, project scientist for the Mars Curiosity rover, “The water would be quite salty and perhaps too salty to offer a good environment for life.”[18] However, given the present concerns for water access on earth, and other NASA officials being optimistic for Mars as the new frontier, the possibility of potable water on Mars seems more likely than not. With that in mind, it may be in the best interest of mankind if scientists and international, legislative bodies begin to consider the environmental and legal implications of water regulation on Mars.

 

Princess Fuller

[1] Sara De Vido, The Right to Water As an International Custom: The Implications in Climate Change Adaptation Measures, 6 Carbon & Climate L. Rev. 221, 221 (2012).

[2] Salman M.A. Salman, The Human Right to Water-Challenges of Implementation, 106 Am. Soc’y Int’l L. Proc. 44, 44 (2012).

[3] Id.

[4] Miriam Kramer, NASA says liquid water may flow on Mars. What does it mean for life?, Mashable (Sept. 28, 2015), http://mashable.com/2015/09/28/life-on-mars-water/#v4ZmE2JuUPqh.

[5] Id.

[6] Jessica Orwig, The Curiosity Mars rover could tap into the greatest mystery behind liquid water on Mars, but there’s a big problem, Business Insider (Oct. 9, 2015), http://www.businessinsider.com/how-discovery-of-water-on-mars-affects-curiosity-rovers-mission-2015-10.

[7] Id.

[8] Robert Lee Hotz, Mars Shows Signs of Flowing Salt Water, Wall Street Journal (Sept. 28, 2015), http://www.wsj.com/article_email/trickles-of-salt-water-may-flow-on-mars-1443452400-lMyQjAxMTE1MDI1MDcyODAxWj.

[9] Audrey Gaughran, Business and Human Rights and the Right to Water, 106 Am. Soc’y Int’l L. Proc. 52, 53 (2012).

[10] Kramer, supra note 4.

[11] Ian Sample, Water on Mars: Nasa faces contamination dilemma over future investigations, The Guardian (Sept. 30, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/29/nasa-crossroads-mars-water-without-contamination-curiosity-rover.

[12] Id.

[13] Orwig, supra note 6.

[14] Itzchak E. Kornfeld, Water: A Public Good or A Commodity?, 106 Am. Soc’y Int’l L. Proc. 49, 51 (2012),

[15] David R. Boyd, No Taps, No Toilets: First Nations and the Constitutional Right to Water in Canada, 57 McGill L.J. 81 (2011),

[16] Kornfeld, supra note 14, at 50.

[17] Vido, supra note 1, 222.

[18] Orwig, supra note 6.

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