News Archive


Budapest, 22 March 2017: Today the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) released its report – Thirsting for Justice: Europe’s Roma Denied Access to Clean Water & Sanitation, highlighting the shocking disparities between Roma and non-Roma in their access to water.

The report summarises research carried out by the ERRC, between 2014 – 2016, covering 93 Romani neighbourhoods and settlements in Albania, France, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and Slovakia.

The human rights to water and sanitation are recognised by the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, and require that States explicitly focus on the most disadvantaged and marginalized. However, our research reveals that large segments of Europe’s Roma continue to be denied or disadvantaged in their access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Even in states and regions where safe water supply and sanitation services were available to almost every non Roma household, we found that Roma populations are still often systemically discriminated against in their access to these essential services. In the sites we investigated, Roma living in legal settlements or neighbourhoods were no less likely to be deprived of water than those in unofficial sites.

In more than half of the places we visited (52.69%), the nearest water source was more than 150 m away. In some places, Roma were forced to walk several kilometres to access water. Distant water resources present a major risk to public health from insufficient sanitation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), when the water source is more than one kilometer away from the home, not only is the volume of water collected likely to be very low; but basic consumption and hygiene practices are compromised to an extent that the risk to public health from poor hygiene becomes very high. Distant public pumps or fire hydrants, which are the only source of water for many Roma, are often managed by reluctant and hostile authorities, who frequently cut them off as soon as they find that Roma are using them.

For more than 40% of the Roma we surveyed, obtaining water necessitated using a dangerous route. Roma often have to get over fences and walls, cross highways, trespass on private property or be confronted by stray dogs in order to get their daily water. The burden of collecting this water falls mainly on women and girls, thus compounding their discrimination.

A near universal lack of indoor toilets means that women and girls also have to cross hazardous terrain and risk harassment by day and night, just to use a toilet. We found only 12% of Roma that had a functioning mechanical toilet, with over 75% using outdoor pit latrines. Frequently the only water source or dry toilet is shared with tens of other people at best.

In the absence of a public water supply, Roma often have no other choice but to rely on untreated and unprotected water sources like self-made wells, natural springs, and rivers, all of which can be a breeding grounds for diseases. These sources are rarely tested to ensure safety and are exposed to a wide range of contaminants, including from the dry toilets (pit latrines), insects, and animals. In some cases even when public water is accessible to Roma, it is still unaffordable for many.

“In many of these countries, there are often Roma living in the exactly the same legal conditions as non Roma, yet they still do not have access to clean water. This is nothing less than direct discrimination against my people. There can be no dispute that many European states are badly failing to meet their long-established international commitments to ‘ensure freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment, and to guarantee equality and non-discrimination.’

To be forced to live without running water and toilet today in Europe is inhumane and degrading. States must adopt laws that explicitly recognise the human right to water and sanitation, and ensure that everyone enjoys equal access to water.” said Đorđe Jovanović, ERRC president.

The full report, including our recommendations for State authorities and the European Commission is available here.

For more information contact:

Jonathan Lee Communications Officer European Roma Rights Centre +36 30 500 2118

Links between the Human Rights to water and sanitation and Water Governance

UN Member States have recognized the human rights to water and sanitation as part of binding international human rights law. In 2015, the right to sanitation was acknowledged as a distinct right, placing priority on its universal realization.The human rights-based approach stresses the correspondence between rights and obligations. Responsibilities and accountability, non-discrimination and disadvantaged groups are put in focus.

In this Issue Sheet the Water Governance Facility (WGF) explores the links between the Human Rights to water and sanitation and water governance. It also outlines the WGF activities related to the topic.

Slovenia: Constitutional right to water “must flow down to” Roma communities

A constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to water for all must be fully implemented to benefit the lives of Slovenia’s Roma communities denied access to water, said Amnesty International.

Whilst the amendment passed today recognises that everyone has the right to drinking water, some Romani communities are still forced to fetch water from polluted streams or public taps and do not have access to adequate toilets.

“Enshrining access to drinking water as a constitutional human right is an important legal step forward for Slovenia, but Roma communities need more than legal changes. Action is now needed to ensure the changes flow down to all those without water and sanitation,” said Fotis Filippou, Amnesty International’s Deputy Europe Director.

“It is shocking that in a highly developed country like Slovenia, where almost 100 per cent of the population have access to safe water, some Roma communities struggle to collect even small amounts of water to drink, cook and bathe themselves and their families.”

Many Roma families in Slovenia live in informal settlements in inadequate and at times unsanitary housing conditions. Some do not have access to water close to their homes and have to travel long distances with jerry cans to get water from petrol stations, cemeteries or polluted streams. These conditions impact their lives and result in illnesses including water borne diseases.

In 2011 a government commission recommended that access to water should be provided to all Roma communities as matter of urgency, but no effective measures have so far been taken.

“The government must now ensure that the constitutional recognition that everyone has a right to drinking water leads to swift and concrete changes,” said Fotis Filippou.

“Failure to do so would not only be an abject dereliction of responsibility by the government but could also prove costly since the new amendment will strengthen the case of anyone challenging their lack of access to water in domestic courts.”

For more information please visit Amnesty International

Update from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Water and Sanitation

The latest communication from Léo Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Water and Sanitation is below:

  1.     Recognition of human rights to water and sanitation

Firstly, the attentive among you may have recognized the change in my title. The General Assembly recognized the human rights to water and sanitation (plural) late last year in Resolution A/RES/70/169. More recently, the Human Rights Council also recognized the distinct rights in a new resolution , meaning that my title has also changed accordingly to reflect the distinct rights. This is news to celebrate as I, like others , believe in the legal foundation and benefit of recognizing water and sanitation as two distinct but integrated rights.

  1.     Annual Reports

Secondly, I have published several reports in connection with the mandate this year. For the Human Rights Council, I have elaborated a report discussing gender equality in the human rights to water and sanitation . I presented this report to the Council last month and I was happy to see that it was broadly well received.

For the General Assembly, I have completed the first of a two-part report  (the second part is still in development and will be published next year) on development cooperation and the human rights to water and sanitation. I will be presenting this report on 25 October at the General Assembly in New York.

I have performed one country mission so far this year. From 11 – 18 May 2016, I was assessing the situation on the human rights to water and sanitation in El Salvador. The full report for that trip is available online, as well as the reports for the two trips that I performed last year to Botswana and Tajikistan . I am also booked to carry out a new mission to Portugal this December along with Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Leilani Farha.

  1.     Recent events

Moving on to relevant events, I recently participated in a webinar organized by the Rural Water Supply Network in which I discussed, “Participation: The key to gender equality in the human rights to water and sanitation? . It was a great interactive opportunity for WASH experts and the broader public to become familiar with aspects of my report on gender equality. I was accompanied by two other speakers in two one-hour sessions, one in English and another in Spanish. Videos of both sessions will soon be available on RWSN’s video channel .

  1.     Communications & press releases

This year I have taken a position on many cases of potential human rights violations, often with or in support of other Special Rapporteurs. Below is a brief summary of cases in which I have either made direct contact with a State regarding potential human rights violations or have issued a press release addressing situations of concern.

Communications to States (complete triannual reports are available here ; where there is no link to a response, one has not been provided)

  •      9 May 2016 – Spain – Alleged violations of the human rights to housing, water and sanitation, health, education and food of members of the Romani community. According to the information received, since 2005, approximately 435 people live in precarious and insalubrious conditions in an informal settlement known as “El Gallinero” in Madrid.

o   See the government’s response here .

  •      5 April 2016 – Flint (United States) – Alleged violations of the human rights of residents of Flint, Michigan, in the context of lead contamination of its water, including the rights to adequate housing, water and sanitation, and non-discrimination.
  •      2 March 2016 – Flint (United States) – Alleged high levels of lead found in water consumed by residents of Flint, Michigan; and allegations that Flint is not an isolated incident but that disproportionate health risks are faced by communities and/or people of lower socio-economic standing due to toxics, pollution and other hazardous substances and wastes in the United States of America.

o   See the government’s response here .

  •      12 December 2015 – India – Alleged blockage at the Nepal-India border of vessels carrying essential goods resulting in a lack of basic supplies and services, including food, fuel, water and sanitation, and medical supplies and services available to the people of Nepal.

o   See the government’s response here .

o   See attached the responses from Samarco , Vale and BHP Billiton .

  •      25 November 2015 – Guatemala  – Alleged violations of several human rights of at least 12,000 people living in 14 communities in the department of El Petén, Guatemala, due to contamination of the La Pasión River. Also, allegations of restrictions on the work of human rights defenders denouncing this situation.

o   See the government’s response here .

  •      24 November 2015 – Brazil – Alleged detrimental human rights impact caused by the collapse of an ore tailing waste dam in Bento Rodrigues, a sub-district of Mariana municipality in Minas Gerais state belonging to Samarco Mining S.A., a joint venture between Vale S.A. and BHP Billiton Brazil Ltda.
  •      23 October 2015 – Haiti/United Nations – Letter sent in follow-up to the allegation letter transmitted to the United Nations Secretary General on 25 September 2014 concerning the cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010. The letter expresses concern about the inability of the victims of the cholera outbreak to vindicate their rights and to obtain access to a remedy for the harms suffered to date.

o   See response from the UN here .

o   See the government’s response here .

  •      14 August 2015 – Mexico  – Alleged impacts on the human rights of approximately 5 indigenous communities of the Yaqui peoples, located along the Yaqui River, caused by the Independencia Aqueduct.
  •      20 July 2015 – Argentina – Alleged violation of the human rights to water, sanitation and food. According to the information received, the residents of western La Pampa still lack an adequate access to water.

o   See the government’s response here .

  •      14 July 2015 – Brazil – Alleged imminent eviction of approximately 20,000 persons residing in three urban informal settlements in the State of Minas Gerais.
  •      24 July 2015 – Brazil – Allegations concerning the inadequate response to the contamination and poisoning of the environment and citizens in Piquiá de Baixo, Açailândia, Maranhão State, Amazon Region, in follow-up to the Government’s response to the previous communication of 5 November 2014.
  •      29 July 2015 – Syria – Alleged disconnection of piped water supply in the city of Aleppo, Syria, for almost a month, resulting in a lack of adequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation at homes, hospitals and health facilities.

Press releases (these are merely a selection – all press releases can be accessed here

  1.     Shareable media

I have started the production of a series of leaflets covering diverse subjects related to the human rights to water and sanitation. The intention of these foldable leaflets is to make them adequate for wide distribution. For this reason I am making efforts to make them available in a variety of languages. The first in this series, available in PDF format in English , French & Spanish , covers the subject of eliminating inequalities in access to water and sanitation as a part of the SDGs. Subsequent leaflets are being prepared on the themes of some of my reports (e.g. gender equality, levels and types of services).

I am very interested in knowing if you have suggestions for other themes or types of shareable material!

In closing, let me remind you that my main page on the OHCHR website is regularly kept up to date with my current and activities. I also encourage you to follow my Facebook page and Twitter account (@SRWatSan).

More information is available on the RWSN blog


RWSN webinar recordings available

 RWSN Webinar Recordings:

The RWSN recordings have now begun.

13.10.2016 – Participation: The key to gender equality in the human rights to water and sanitation? – Leo Heller

The recording in Spanish is here and in English is below:

More recordings will follow.

RWSN Webinar : Participation –  the key to gender equality in the human rights to water and sanitation?

Thursday 13th October at 13:30 Central European Time*


  • Léo Heller, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Brazil
  • Mayra Gómez, Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • Seema Kulkarni, SOPPECOM, Pune, IndiaFacilitator
  • Kerstin Danert, Skat Foundation, RWSN Secretariat

Join on:

Find out about the other webinars in the 2016 series here and register for the webinars.

Summary of webinars:

Date Language Time (CET)* Title
13.10 English 1.30 – 2.30 PM Participation: The key to gender equality in the human rights to water and sanitation? – Leo Heller
Spanish 4.00 – 5.00 PM Participación: ¿La clave para lograr la igualdad de género en el derecho humano a agua y saneamiento? – Leo Heller

26.10 English 1.30 – 2.30 PM Self-Supply Reloaded: Overview and updates

03.11. English 1.30 – 3.00 PM Sustainability in rural water supply: Improving services with evidence

French 3.30 – 5.00 PM L’approvisionnement durable en eau dans les zones rurales: améliorer la qualité de service sur des bases factuelles

10.11. English 2.00 – 3.00 PM A tool for Supporting and Monitoring the Scaling up of Water and Sanitation Technologies (TAF – Technology Applicability Framework)

Spanish 4.00 – 5.00 PM Una herramienta para apoyar y monitorear la escalabilidad de tecnologías de agua y saneamiento (TAF – Technology Applicability Framework)

*CET = Central European Time / European Central Time (

UN Special Rapporteur launches new WASH sector reports

Léo Heller, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, has just released his first reports on key issues affecting the WASH sector and influencing people’s abilities to realise their human rights to water and sanitation. The most recent report on development cooperation will be presented at the United Nations General Assembly next week, so read the report and all about this important issue ahead of this important event.

Development cooperation

Development cooperation can impact the human rights situation of a State or region in a positive or a negative way. In the present report, the Special Rapporteur discusses development cooperation in the water and sanitation sector, assessing the roles that it can and should play in the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation.

An exploratory work, that will be complemented by a more in-depth report in 2017, is presented in the current report, where the Special Rapporteur clarifies the relevant human rights obligations of bilateral and multilateral funders, including United Nations agencies. Subsequently, he assesses how development cooperation has been evolving in the water and sanitation sector. The Special Rapporteur presents a critical examination of relevant patterns and tendencies, drawing attention to the current approaches of funders and partner States in that field, with a focus on the related human rights principles and normative content. A number of key issues are addressed, with emphasis on assessing measures that mitigate possible negative impacts and aiming to maximize the potential positive impacts on realising people’s human rights.

Visit the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website online to view and download the report on Development Cooperation. On the far right of the page, click on (E) for English, (F) for French and so on, to download the report in your relevant United Nations language.

Gender equality

Heller has also recently completed a comprehensive report on gender equality issues which was presented this week to the Human Rights Council. Gender equality is a fundamental human rights principle, and yet despite this, rampant inequalities between men and women are currently observed in all countries around the world – often translating into unequal opportunities and grave human rights violations.

In the report, the Special Rapporteur focuses on gender equality in the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation. The rapport explains that a transformative approach is a prerequisite for ultimately achieving gender equality in the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation. This approach requires challenging social norms, stereotypes and intra-household patterns, while also promoting gender-responsive interventions that prioritise the implementation of women’s specific needs. At the same time, the Special Rapporteur indicates that tackling the material and structural determinants of gender inequalities in access to water, sanitation and hygiene could serve as an entry point to address gender inequality more broadly.

The rapport seeks to highlight areas that need particular attention in order to prevent and respond to gender inequalities in access to water and sanitation, as well as gender-based violence and barriers to the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation.

Click here to download the report in all UN languages.



The Human Right to Sanitation: new research article published

Sanitation is a very personal and private matter, inextricably linked to human dignity. At the same time, sanitation has an important public health dimension. In this regard, sanitation is not only about an individual’s right to have access to a toilet or latrine. Inadequate sanitation leads to contamination of the environment, of public spaces, and of water bodies through faeces and waste water. Therefore, contamination has a negative impact on public health and the life and well-being of everyone in the community, affecting their human rights to health, life, food, and a healthy environment. This multitude of rights concerned makes sanitation complex to understand and address through the lens of human rights.

The article discusses how sanitation has long been, and continues to be, a neglected issue and how it is slowly gaining more and more attention, including in the context of human rights. The article traces the steps that led to the political recognition of the human right to sanitation, and then discusses the legal status of the right to sanitation: is sanitation a “new” human right? Or has it rather been an implicit component of existing human rights guarantees that has only recently started receiving increased attention?

We also examine the complexity of realising the right to sanitation and related human rights combining the aspects of individual dignity and public health. It acknowledges that sanitation is largely a matter of individual responsibility, but argues that states have a significant role to play in creating an environment that enables individuals to practice adequate sanitation as well as in ensuring public health.

Download the “The Human Right to Sanitation” written by Inga Winkler, published in 2016 in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law.


Brazil mine disaster – UN experts call for a timely resolution following settlement suspension

In November 2015, a burst dam in an iron-ore mine caused severe flooding and mudslides in the Minas Gerais state in Brazil, contaminating water supplies and destroying sanitation infrastructure.

The Brazilian Superior Court of Justice has suspended the settlement agreement between the Government of Brazil and the mining companies regarding the disaster, as it does not adequately safeguard human rights.

See a statement by three Special Rapporteurs (SR): Léo Heller, SR on human rights and hazardous substances, Baskut Tuncak, and SR on rights of indigenous peoples and the Chair of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.

U.S Congress members demand justice for victims of 2010 cholera epidemic in Haiti

In 2010, a cholera epidemic was brought to Haiti by the poor sanitation systems installed by United Nations Peacekeepers during emergency relief. 10,000 people were officially killed and over 1 million made sick.

In light of this injustice, there is a growing movement campaigning for the United Nations to be held to account for this cholera outbreak. Whilst the U.S has both publicly and privately opposed remedies for victims, last week, on Wednesday 29th June, 158 members of the United States Congress wrote a letter to the U.S Secretary of State John Kerry demanding the U.S. Government to do more to advance justice for the victims of the cholera epidemic.

Other support includes:
• Over 2000 victims wrote to the Security Council in December.
• A letter from 4 UN Special Rapporteurs and the OHCHR’s Independent Expert on Haiti, and declarations from five of the nine Secretary-General candidates who have opined publicly
• A legal claim against the UN in US courts on behalf of the cholera victims made by Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti, widely supported. The case is currently on appeal.

The cholera epidemic is the worst of modern times and although the peak of the epidemic in 2011 is over, hundreds of Haitians per year are killed and the first four months of 2016 were worse than any year since 2013.

For more information about the movement to seek justice for the victims click here.

France adopts the Right to Water and Sanitation

On Tuesday 14th June 2016, the National Assembly of France has adopted Bill no. 2715 on the effective implementation of the Right to Water and Sanitation.

France is the first country in Europe to adopt the Right to Water and Sanitation which will ensure that everyone in France is provided by safe water and sanitation, particularly for the most disadvantaged, those who have no access to water and those for whom water is too expensive. It is thought this law will have an impact on one million households.

This is a great success for all the civil society organisations that initiated the bill, including la Coalition Eau. However, these organisations will continue to lobby the Senate to ensure the law is fully adopted.