What are the rights to water and sanitation?
Water and sanitation are essential for life, for health, for dignity, for empowerment and prosperity. They are human rights, fundamental to every person.
Millions of people lack access to safe, sufficient and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene facilities that are accessible and within easy reach for all. This has a devastating effect on the health, dignity and prosperity of these people, especially for the most disadvantaged. This lack of access also has significant consequences for the realisation of other human rights.
By recognising water and sanitation as human rights, people are defined as rights-holders and States as duty-bearers of water and sanitation service provision. This means that the provision of water and sanitation is not a matter of charity – but a legal obligation. Rights-holders can claim their rights and duty-bearers must guarantee the rights to water and sanitation – like other human rights – equally, without discrimination and on the basis of participation and accountability.
Water and sanitation are human rights
By now, all United Nations (UN) Member States have recognised the human rights to water and sanitation by supporting one or more international documents, such as resolutions or declarations.
Water and sanitation in international law
Water and sanitation are explicitly recognised as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights in a Resolution that was passed by the UN General Assembly in July 2010. Later that same year a Human Rights Council Resolution was passed by consensus, confirming that the rights to water and sanitation already exist in international law, as they are derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and also the right to health, guaranteed under Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In 2013, the UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/157 and the Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/RES/24/18 both reaffirmed their recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation in consensus.
In addition, other human rights treaties refer explicitly to water and sanitation, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
For more international standards on the rights to water and sanitation, please visit this page.
What do these rights entail?
The human right to water entitles everyone without discrimination to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use. The human right to sanitation entitles everyone without discrimination to physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, which is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable, which provides for privacy and ensures dignity. Sanitation is defined as a system for the collection, transport, treatment, disposal or reuse of human excreta and associated hygiene.
In order to describe the meaning of these rights, content categories have been developed in General Comment No. 15 on the Right to Water and in the Statement on Sanitation, both issued by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) the treaty body responsible for monitoring State compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
For more information on what these content categories entail, see Content of the rights and principles.
Underlying human rights principles
Furthermore, all human rights share common human rights principles, which must always be ensured. The principles are non-discrimination and equality, accountability, transparency, sustainability, and the access to information and participation.
For more information on what these and human rights principles entail, see Content of the rights and principles.
Water and sanitation as two distinct rights
UN resolutions refer to the right to water and sanitation – but this often leads to situations in which preference is given to water and sanitation is neglected. It is important to think of the rights to water and sanitation as separate rights because although the human rights to water and sanitation are closely related, there are also important differences. Privacy and dignity are of particular importance for the right to sanitation. When people do not feel that a toilet or latrine ensures that they can urinate, defecate and take care of menstrual hygiene in privacy and with dignity, it is highly likely that they will not use them and resort to – at worst – open defecation. Sanitation furthermore has distinct features and not all sanitation solutions rely on water-borne systems.
When water and sanitation are considered as two separate rights, particular attention can be paid to defining specific standards for the right to sanitation, and will trigger focused attention on the realisation of the right to sanitation.
Inter-dependency and inter-relatedness
All human rights are interrelated and indivisible from one another. This means that human rights all impact on another and cannot be considered in isolation. For example, the right to health can only be guaranteed when people’s rights to safe water and sanitation are satisfied: a lack of sanitation and water in insufficient amounts or low quality are one of the main causes of disease around the world.
The human rights to water and sanitation stem from the right to an adequate standard of living, as they are a fundamental component to this right. The right to housing requires infrastructure for water and sanitation, which is affordable to all. Water furthermore establishes a fundamental aspect of the right to food, as growing crops and cooking food requires water. The right to education is hindered when girls drop out of school because of a lack of sanitation and menstrual hygiene facilities. This inter-dependency of human rights therefore requires a comprehensive approach, as they cannot be seen in isolation.
Frequently Asked Questions on the Rights to Water and Sanitation
The recognition of the rights to water and sanitation is a breakthrough that ends a long lasting discussion, but it is only a first step. Now it is crucial to implement these rights and turn them into a reality for everyone. This document covers the most frequently asked questions about implementing the rights to water and sanitation and what the rights require, based on work done by former UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque.
The former Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, has further specified the content and meaning of the rights to water and sanitation in numerous statements, reports, and country missions. They can be found here.
Please also refer to the Handbook for further information on the implementation of the rights.