Rights in practice

Access to water and sanitation is not a matter of charity – people are legally entitled to water and sanitation, and can hold actors to account when their rights to water and sanitation have been violated.

Claiming your rights

States must translate the international human rights to water and sanitation to the national level: by implementing the rights in national legislation and policies. This way, the rights to water and sanitation become enforceable at the national level- meaning that everyone in that country can then can claim their rights and seek remedies.

There are different ways to claim the human rights to water and sanitation. You can decide to enforce your rights in front of court, but this is an option of last resort – as court proceedings can take very long and usually multiple other ways are open to seek remedies, including:

  • Complaint mechanisms at the service provider
  • Complaint mechanisms at the administrative level
  • National Human Rights Institutions (including ombudsmen)

See Handbook Booklet 6. Justice for more information on these remedial mechanisms.

Please refer to Legal case studies for examples of successful litigation of the rights.

Advocating for the rights

Individuals and communities can advocate for bringing about change in access to water and sanitation. They can use the human rights to water and sanitation in their advocacy campaigns. Using human rights in campaigning significantly changes the way we talk about and approach the topic of water and sanitation: Everyone has rights and is entitled to safe water and sanitation, while governments are obliged to progressively fulfil these rights.

The voice of the community must be at the heart of every advocacy campaign – and every campaign is designed to advocate for a particular issue. Advocacy is therefore very context dependent, and must be aimed at a particular target. Therefore no campaign will be the same. Advocating for water and sanitation can for example be targeted at changing the local, national or even international policy and practice. People can aim to change legislation with regard to the rights, or campaign for the prioritisation of areas that are currently neglected in service provision of water and sanitation.

Next to claiming rights and advocating for rights – you can also support the development of the human rights to water and sanitation by supporting the work of the United Nations, through reporting to the Treaty Bodies or the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

See Advocating for the rights to find out more how to do this – and to find examples of campaigns and community action.

Please also refer to WaterAid’s Advocacy Sourcebook, Freshwater Action Network’s Rights to Water and Sanitation: A Handbook for Activists and End Water Poverty’s Keep Your Promises Guide to the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation (2013) for more information on advocating for water and sanitation.

Human rights based approach

The Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) seeks to base all development co-operation and assistance on the international framework of human rights. This is increasingly promoted in development work and is based on international human rights standards directed to promoting and protecting human rights standards and principles.

See Human rights based approach for more information.