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Will Governments Keep Their Promises on the Human Right to Water?

Dilip Surkar is co-chair of End Water Poverty, a global coalition of more than 275 NGOs and CSOs campaigning on water and sanitation, and director of VIKSAT, an institution of the Nehru Foundation for Development.

Water is supplied by the military in Old Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: UN Photo/Kibae Park

AHMEDABAD, India, Sep 20 2014 (IPS) - It was a dramatic moment at the United Nations when it voted in 2010 to affirm water and sanitation as a human right.

Then Bolivian ambassador to the U.N., Pablo Solon, shocked the silent auditorium with a devastating reminder of the consequences a lack of access to safe, available and affordable water and sanitation have on human life – every 21 seconds, a child dies of a water-borne disease.

The shameful events in Detroit, when thousands of the poorest inhabitants of the U.S. city were disconnected from their water supply this summer after being unable to pay their bills, brought the failure to realise the human right to water and sanitation into sharp relief.

This key moment at the U.N. – which hosts its General Assembly next week – marked the beginning of a diplomatic process through which the need for states to progressively realise the human right to water and sanitation, and all the standards and principles it entails, became an obligation for member states.

Now, four years on, governments around the world are coming together to finalise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which will guide official development policy and processes for the next 15 years.

However, while there has been recognition of the centrality of water and sanitation to development through its standalone goal, there has been a palpable reluctance from many – though not all – governments to firmly state the realisation of the human right to water and sanitation as a SDG target.

Mirroring this at national level, there is an equally distinct lack of movement in the recognition of the right in constitutions and legislation. And in many cases where it is recognised, a few bright spots aside, rights have failed to become a reality.

Rights vs reality

In the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, the framework of access has come to dominate. For those unfamiliar with the human right and its legal obligations, it is a perfectly reasonable call – for everyone to have access to water and sanitation.

But everyone has a human right to water and sanitation that is not only accessible, but universally available, safe and affordable and in addition to this for sanitation, acceptable.

Reducing our demand for water and sanitation to access alone hinders the fulfilment of these all important standards of the human right, while it also puts out of focus human rights principles such as opposing discrimination, ensuring participation, equality and accountability, among others.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) reduced our monitoring of water to access alone, with no measure for its sustainability. While having a tap would be a step up for many millions, as anyone living without water as a daily reality could attest, a tap, standpipe or other means of accessing water does not mean water is consistently available from it, nor that it is safe or affordable.

By the measure of access alone, the MDG on water has already been achieved. Figures from the World Health Organisation and Unicef’s Joint Monitoring Programme suggest that 748 million people now lack access to water – between 1990 and 2012, 2.3 billion people gained access to ‘improved drinking water sources’.

But, as research has demonstrated, increase the complexity of this measure to safe water and the figure balloons: some 1.8 billion people are thought to lack access to safe water.

The shameful events in Detroit, when thousands of the poorest inhabitants of the U.S. city were disconnected from their water supply this summer after being unable to pay their bills, brought the failure to realise the human right to water and sanitation into sharp relief: in the world’s richest economy, people can be left, essentially, to die, removed in a discriminatory manner from the sustenance of life-giving water.

“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying,” said U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, who was joined by the rapporteurs on housing and extreme poverty in condemning the USA.

“In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

In Kenya, one of the very few countries where the human right to water and sanitation is embedded in the constitution, rights remain far from reality, with patterns visible across the world replicated in microcosm – the poor pay more for their water than the rich.

“I call upon the authorities to take immediate measures to enforce and monitor the official tariffs for water kiosks. This is crucial to correct the systematic pattern of the poor paying much more for water from kiosks than the rich for water from pipes,”said de Albuquerque.

“The rights to water and sanitation should not remain a dream for so many. These rights are recognised in the Kenyan Constitution itself,” she went on.

What is to be done?

At End Water Poverty, the world’s biggest water and sanitation coalition with more than 275 members, we decided at the beginning of the year to reframe our “Keep Your Promises” campaign to focus on the human right to water and sanitation.

This means that at a national level we will support our members in demanding that the right is recognised, and where it is already recognised, that it is realised.

This means all the standards and principles of the right are adhered to; it means that in situations of water scarcity the state must meet people’s needs, whether for drinking, cooking, washing or hygiene, as a first priority; and it means governments must use the maximum available resources in a non-discriminatory manner to realise the right.

At an international level, it means the SDGs must adopt the realisation of the right as a target. Do governments intend to regress on international human rights law they created? Do they not want provision of water and sanitation to be framed by non-discrimination? Or for sanitation to be framed by privacy, dignity and cultural acceptability?

As then U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said last year on the SDG process, development efforts must be directed to the realisation of human rights:

“This has been so central to the demands of people from all regions that we can now confidently assert that the extent to which it is reflected in the new framework, will in large measure, determine its illegitimacy.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

 
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