Access to safe water and sanitation services is fundamental for life, for health, for dignity, empowerment and prosperity. Next to the fact that people need water to avoid dehydration, water is fundamental to fulfil many of the most basic human needs; such as for the preparation of food, for personal hygiene, menstrual hygiene and to wash hands before eating or after using the toilet. Clean drinking water, and safe sanitation are intrinsic to the fulfilment of the right to health, to an adequate standard of living, the right to adequate housing, the right to education, and to the fulfilment of many other rights. Sanitation is furthermore intrinsic to human dignity. Without a toilet, people lack privacy while defecating in the open, or in plastic bags; women often have to wait till dusk to find a place to defecate in privacy.
The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use. The human right to sanitation entitles everyone to services that are physically accessible and affordable, safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable, and which provide privacy and ensure dignity. Sanitation is defined as a system for the collection, transport, treatment, disposal or reuse of human excreta and associated hygiene.
A human rights based approach to water and sanitation promotes participation in and information about people’s access to decision-making forums that affect their access to water, sanitation and hygiene services. It furthermore ensures that water and sanitation service provision is based on the principles of non-discrimination and equality, it promotes national and international justiciability of the rights, it promotes accountability and transparency and provides mechanisms to progressively realise increasing peoples access to water and sanitation.
What else can a human rights based approach achieve?
Improved accountability: The right to water and sanitation confirms that access to minimum essential supplies of safe water and basic sanitation is a legal entitlement, rather than a charity or only a moral priority. The right to water provides a basis for individuals and groups to hold governments and other actors to account. Full recognition of access to water and sanitation as a right gives a real mandate to government officials to promote access to water and sanitation for all. Communities and other organisations can use the right to lobby the responsible agencies for improvements and call on them to fulfil their obligations.
Genuine participation and full access to relevant information: Human rights oblige governments to provide full access to information and engage in genuine consultation and participation with communities in all decision-making. Although participation is now acknowledged as best practice in the development sector, centralised planning processes remain prevalent and can neglect the input of various users, particularly those traditionally neglected, such as women or people living in informal settlements. The right to water and sanitation can help empower and enable communities to organise themselves, seek and obtain information, and legitimately take part in and influence the outcomes of relevant decision-making processes.
Progressive realisation of the rights: The concept of progressive realisation demands that states take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps towards fully realising Covenant rights as expeditiously and effectively as possible and using the maximum available resources. States should establish service levels and prioritise firstly the achievement of a basic service level for all. The obligation to focus on the most marginalised and vulnerable is crucial for progressive realisation to bring about progress where it is most needed. Also, the principle of ‘non-retrogression’ means that any intentional or unintentional backward steps, such as acts or omissions that deprive people of the rights to water and sanitation at a level they used to enjoy them, are generally prohibited. This may include for example the cutting of subsidies for water and sanitation.
Sustainability: The rights to water and sanitation must be realised for present and for future generations, and facilities and services must be socially, environmentally and economically sustainable. Sufficient attention must be paid to operation and maintenance to make sure that facilities do not break down or are not effective. In order to ensure that there is enough available water for people to drink, clean and wash themselves, even in times of drought and increasing water scarcity and climate change, prioritisation of water for domestic use is critical. Water resources must furthermore be protected from over-extraction and contamination. And states must ensure that they plan sustainable service provision so that everyone can enjoy a minimum level of services in the years to come, also when resources are constrained, for example during times of financial crisis.
For more information see the Special Rapporteur’s report ‘Sustainability in the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation’.
Priority for people without basic accesses: The right to water and sanitation entails that governments must prioritise ensuring access to minimum essential supplies to safe water services and basic sanitation for all people and use available resources accordingly. In order to ensure equality, states must aim to close the gaps between those served and unserved. Governments spending their water and sanitation budgets on upgrading existing services to middle-class areas, while people in informal settlements or rural areas are left with no access at all, violate their international human rights obligations.
Non-discrimination, equality and attention to marginalised and vulnerable groups: International human rights law envisages the equal enjoyment of all rights by all people; states must therefore work towards equality in water and sanitation service provision. Both direct and indirect discrimination must be prohibited, and in order to reach equality of water and sanitation service provision, states must work towards eliminating existing inequalities. This requires that targeted affirmative measures must be taken to overcome disparities between for example urban and rural populations and that laws and policies provide special focus on vulnerable and marginalised groups, such as persons living in informal settlements.