The rights to water and sanitation at the national level

States must ensure that their commitments at the international level are translated to the national level. They must therefore implement the rights to water and sanitation in national legislation, policies and plans. Recognising the rights to water and sanitation domestically is intrinsic to fulfilling the right, it entitles individuals to demand it politically, administratively and judicially.

To view States positions to the human rights obligations related to access to water and sanitation please view the OHCHR study. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called for responses to a questionnaire concerning human rights obligations to water and sanitation. Responses from States give a clear outline of what legislation and policies they have put in place to meet the obligations.

Constitutions

The Constitution provides the strongest guarantee of human rights as it represents the supreme law of the State – with which all others laws must comply.

The human right to water – and sometimes the human right to sanitation – are and have been part of many constitutions. In 2004, Uruguay became the first country to include an explicit guarantee of the human rights to water and sanitation in its Constitution, stating in Article 47 that:

[…] Access to clean water and access to sanitation constitute fundamental human rights […]

India provides an example of an implicit constitutional guarantee of the rights to water and sanitation. While the rights to water and sanitation are not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, many court cases have interpreted the right to life under the Indian Constitution as encompassing the right to safe and sufficient water and sanitation.

Countries that refer to the right to water in their constitutions include: Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Philippines, Malawi, Gambia, Uganda, Dominican Republic, Belgium, Maldives, Niger, Tunisia, Kenya, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Zambia, Uruguay, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Countries with a reference to sanitation in their constitution include: Domican Republic, Maldives, Kenya, Ecuador, Zambia, Uruguay, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia.

International human rights law does not oblige States to include a guarantee of the human rights to water and sanitation in their constitutions, nor does it prescribe whether such a guarantee should be explicit or implicit. However, a constitutional guarantee is highly desirable to ensure that individuals can easily enforce their rights to water and sanitation and to ensure that the constitutional guarantee can override other laws and regulations that contravene the rights to water and sanitation.

If you would like to have an overview of how the rights to water and sanitation are implemented in constitutions worldwide, see the Sourcebook by WASH United, Freshwater Action Network and Waterlex (2012) here.

Laws, regulations, policies and plans

The content of human rights to water and sanitation must be implemented in laws, regulations, policies and plans. This way, the content of the human rights to water and sanitation can be guaranteed in a practical manner. Laws and regulations set for example the details on the affordability (e.g. by means of tariff systems) and accessibility (e.g. regulations on the design of sanitation facilities) of service provision.

If you would like to learn more about how all the content categories and human rights principles can be implemented in national legal frameworks, read Section 2 ‘Legislative, regulatory and policy frameworks’ of the Handbook.

For an overview of international, regional and national legislation and policies see The Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation in Law and Policy – A Sourcebook,WASH United, Freshwater Action Network and WaterLex, 2012.