Roles and responsibilities for the realisation of the rights

The human rights to water and sanitation identify certain obligations and responsibilities of states towards their residents. Human rights define people as rights-holders and states as duty-bearers of water and sanitation service provision. 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.

Progressive realisation and maximum available resources

States are required to work progressively on the realisation of the human rights – as laid down in Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Progressive realisation means that:

  • Rights can only be achieved over time – it is not possible to provide everyone with water and sanitation by tomorrow.
  • States must work in such a way that the human rights to water and sanitation will be fully realised for everybody as fast as possible using all the resources they have available to them.

In order to progressively fulfil the rights to water and sanitation, States will have to undertake a number of measures, including, for example:

  • The adoption of legislation on the rights to water and sanitation
  • Strategies and plans to ensure that everyone will have access to water and sanitation.
  • Regulations which ensure that everyone involved in delivering WASH services (government actors, private companies and service providers) must comply with to ensure that they can be held accountable for any actions they undertake which violates the human rights to water and sanitation.
  • Plans that target the poorest and most marginalised groups in order to close the gaps between those groups that have access, and those that do not.


Complementary to the principle of progressive realisation is the principle of “non-retrogression”. Progressive realisation demands that things move forward. Conversely, retrogression, which is reversing agreed decisions, should not happen. Any intentional or non-intentional step backwards in the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation is a retrogression.

Sources: Keep Your Promises Campaign Guide to the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation, 2014; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 3: The Nature of States parties obligations, 1990

The obligation to respect, protect and fulfil

The obligations of States stemming from Economic Social and Cultural Rights, including the rights the water and sanitation, can be seen as duties to respect, protect and fulfil rights.

  • The obligation to respect requires States to refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the existing enjoyment of the rights to water and sanitation. Any measures that worsen an individual’s access to water and/or sanitation are considered a violation of these rights unless they can be fully justified. For example, cutting off a person’s water supply if the person is unable to pay constitutes a violation of the duty to respect the right.
  • The obligation to protect the human rights to water and sanitation requires that States must prevent third parties (including individuals, groups, corporations and other entities under their authority) from interfering in any way with people’s enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation. For example, States must ensure that water sources are protected from pollution by third parties, by for example industries, by means of appropriate legislation or regulation.
  • The obligation to fulfill the human rights to water and sanitation requires States to ensure that the conditions are in place for everyone to enjoy the human rights to water and sanitation. This does not mean that the State has to provide the services directly, unless there are individuals or groups who cannot access their human rights– in that case States are obliged to provide the rights through – for example – tariff structures that make services affordable for everyone or ensuring the expansion of networks to areas that are not yet served.

The obligation of States to guarantee that the human rights to water and sanitation are enjoyed without discrimination on all grounds. This intersects all three obligations and constitutes an immediate obligation.

If you would like to know more about these obligations, you can refer to the Frequently Asked Questions Leaflet published by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation.