Content of the rights and principles

The normative content categories of the human rights to water and sanitation serve to describe the issues that states need to take into account in realising the rights to water and sanitation.

How to use the normative content of the rights

The content categories as described below serve as guidance in assessing whether water and sanitation services are compliant with the human rights to water and sanitation. They cannot provide for standards that apply to every situation – as every individual situation is unique. For example: A regulation that prescribes the standards for the design of toilet facilities for schools might be entirely rights compliant for 99.99% of the schools – but fail to be compliant with the human right to sanitation in one particular school, as one student is not able to access the toilet because of a specific disability. For this particular school, a different standard should be applied to ensure that every pupil can use the toilet.


Water and sanitation must be available for everyone in the household or its immediate vicinity, in sufficient quantity and on a continuous basis, for personal and domestic use. This includes drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation and personal and household hygiene. There must be a sufficient number of water outlets and sanitation facilities to ensure that the needs of the people are met and collection and waiting times are not unreasonably long. Also, sanitation is only considered available when the collection, transport, treatment and disposal or reuse of human excreta and associated hygiene is ensured.

Physical accessibility

Water and sanitation infrastructure must be constructed in such a way and located in such a place that facilities are accessible for everyone at all times. Including for people with particular needs, such as children, older persons, persons with disabilities or persons with chronic diseases. The facilities must be safe to use for all users. Participation is crucial in order to design the facilities needed and to build them in the most convenient location.

  • Time and distance: Sanitation and water facilities must be physically accessible for everyone within or in the immediate vicinity of each household, health or educational institution, public institution and workplace, or any other place where people spend significant amounts of their time.
  • Physical security: Facilities must be within easy reach and with safe paths to get there and located in a safe area, including at night.
  • Design of facilities: Mechanisms to extract water from pipes or wells, and the designs of sanitation facilities need to be adapted so everyone can use them, including older persons, children, persons with disabilities, and chronically ill people, and pregnant women. For sanitation facilities, the needs of these individuals have implications for the entrance size of the sanitation facility, the interior space, handrails or other support mechanisms, the position of defecation, as well as other aspects.


Water and sanitation services must take into account the cultural needs and preferences of users – this can only be achieved by involving individuals and communities in the planning of services (see the human rights principle ‘Participation’ below).

  • Water must be of an acceptable colour, odour and taste for each personal or domestic use, as people may otherwise resort to unsafe alternatives. The water facility must also be acceptable for usage, especially concerning personal hygiene. Facilities must ensure privacy and dignity of users.
  • Sanitation facilities will only be used when they are acceptable to users. This often requires toilets to ensure privacy, and often includes that facilities must be separated by sex. Facilities will need to accommodate common hygiene practices, such as either water or paper for anal and genital cleansing. Toilets for women and girls must have facilities for the disposal of menstrual materials and for menstrual hygiene management.


Access to water and sanitation must be affordable for everyone. Paying for water and sanitation services must not limit a person’s capacity to acquire other essential goods or services, such as food, housing, education or healthcare. Affordability of water and sanitation services as well as associated hygiene must ensure people are not forced to resort to other, unsafe alternatives. The human rights to water and sanitation do not call for services to be free of charge. Services must however be affordable for all, which includes the need to develop tariff systems and subsidies, or in some cases free services, to ensure that services are affordable for all.


Water must be safe for human consumption and for personal and domestic hygiene. It must be free from microorganisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person´s health. Sanitation facilities must be hygienically and technically safe to use and must effectively prevent human, animal and insect contact with human excreta to protect the health of users and the community. Toilets must provide hygiene facilities for washing hands with soap and water and must enable menstrual hygiene management for women and girls, including the disposal of menstrual products.

If you would like to know more, see Booklet 1. Introduction of the Handbook; you can also refer to the UN Special Rapporteur’s Frequently Asked Questions Leaflet.


The underlying human rights principles

Human rights principles apply across all of international human rights law and therefore must be complied with. The full set of human rights principles comprises the principles of non-discrimination and equality, participation, accountability, access to information, and transparency.

Non-discrimination and equality

International human rights law envisages the equal enjoyment of all rights by all people. The principle of non-discrimination and equality is therefore a cornerstone of human rights practice. It encompasses both the prohibition of discrimination and the obligation for states to work towards equality, including in water and sanitation service provision.

Discrimination of individuals or groups on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status must be prohibited.

States must furthermore be mindful of indirect (de facto) discrimination and – where this is revealed – take immediate measures to effectively end it. Certain practices or legislation may have a (unintended) discriminatory effect on certain people.

States must also work towards eliminating existing inequalities. This requires knowledge of disparities, which typically not only include income groups but also rural – urban populations, disparities based on gender and the de facto exclusion of marginalised groups. Targeted affirmative measures must be taken to ensure that gaps between those who have access to water, sanitation and hygiene and those who do not, are narrowed and eventually closed.

Some places, persons and groups will often require particular attention in the realisation of the rights to water and sanitation, as they are often marginalised and excluded or are potentially vulnerable. This includes for example people living in informal settlements, indigenous peoples, refugees, traveller communities, internally displaced persons and returnees, victims of natural disasters, prisoners, older persons, people with disabilities, people with serious or chronic illnesses, children, women and transgender and intersex individuals.

Access to information and transparency

Only informed users of water and sanitation services will be able to voice concerns and hold duty-bearers to account. The state must make information available about current and planned water and sanitation law, policies and programmes, including for example on the provision of services, tariff systems and the quality of water and sanitation.

A transparent government furthermore assures visibility and accessibility of information. Transparency establishes openness of information without the need for preceding requests, through for example dissemination of information on the radio, internet and official journals. Transparency should therefore be integrated throughout the entire legal framework, institutions and proceedings of the state.

States should disseminate information through channels that are easily accessible to all. States must ensure that information is translated in all relevant languages and dialects and ensure that people who are unable to read can access information through other means, such as radio and through information centres. In any case, it is crucial that states always consider the particular needs of the individuals or groups that have an interest in the information available.


The human rights to water and sanitation can only be realised in an effective manner when people become part of all processes that relate to the realisation of these rights. Participation must be active, free and meaningful. It must provide for real opportunities to influence the planning process. Participation ensures better implementation and enhances the effectiveness and sustainability of interventions, as it ensures that local conditions and needs can be taken into account. Opportunities for participation, including community needs assessments, must be established as early as possible. Any plan or decision-making that relates to the realisation of the rights to water and to sanitation must be developed through a participatory and transparent process.


Service providers and the government must be accountable to users. Individuals or groups who feel that their rights have been violated must have access to independent review mechanisms and courts to have their complaints heard and resolved. Furthermore, mechanisms must be enacted that establish oversight and control between both public and private actors in water and sanitation provision. Clear institutional mandates must be defined to build accountability into the entire system of water and sanitation provision. Actions taken or decisions made under those mandates must be accountable and regulated through a system of oversight responsibilities.


Sustainability is essential to the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation, as it must be ensured that once services and facilities have been improved, these improvements are maintained. Also, water and sanitation must be provided in a way that respects the environment. Services must be available for present and for future generations, and the provision of services today should not compromise the ability of future generations to realise their human rights to water and sanitation. Therefore, sufficient investments in operation and maintenance of existing services have to be ensured.

For more information please see the UN Special Rapporteur’s book On the Right Track – Good Practices in Realising the Rights to Water and Sanitation,  Booklet 7. Principles of the Handbook  or the FAQ Leaflet mentioned above.