Has water as a human right moved from a resolution to reality?

Henry J Kamara's photograph for the 10th anniversary of the human right to water and sanitation recognized as a human right by the United Nations General Assembly. Photo by: Henry J Kamara / WaterAid

ALICANTE, Spain — Ten years on since the United Nations General Assembly officially recognized the human right to water and sanitation, 1 in 10 people — 785 million in all — still lack access to clean water close to home. One in 4 people, or 2 billion in total, do not have a decent toilet of their own.

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Resolution 64/292, which came into effect on July 28, 2010, called upon states and international organizations to help countries provide safe, clean, accessible, and affordable drinking water and sanitation.

The recognition immediately eliminated arguments with governments over water, sanitation, and hygiene as a human right and allowed advocates to immediately jump in at the local or national level, said Amanda Klasing, acting co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. But there are still significant struggles globally to realize that right, she added.

The impact of the resolution

John Oldfield, principal of Global Water 2020, an initiative focused on water access and security, agreed that the resolution has been an important tool in the WASH advocacy toolkit over the past decade but said it is underutilized.

According to Oldfield, it has not been terribly helpful on a global level in making progress on the Millennium Development Goals or Sustainable Development Goals. Currently, more than half of the world’s population lacks safe sanitation services, meaning SDG 6 — “clean water and sanitation for all” — is far from being achieved.

Such resolutions are “as impactful as we make them,” Louisa Gosling, senior WASH manager at WaterAid, said in an email. “But a declaration that something is a fundamental human right is extremely powerful. Clear understanding of what they are can galvanize action at all levels.”

For example, Léo Heller, the special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said SDG 6 may not have come about if it were not for the resolution. “There’s a very interesting alignment with the language of those targets under SDG 6 and the human right to water and sanitation,” he said.

Video by: Sanitation and Water for All. Via YouTube

Despite this, Heller said he is “frustrated” with the pace, recognition, and implementation of the resolution at the national and local levels. “I think it’s an issue of getting governments and public agents in the sector more familiar with those rights,” he said, adding that governments also need to be stricter in allocating their budgets.

As Gosling pointed out, international law does not always equate to action or progress. “It needs to be incorporated into local and national law too,” she wrote.

According to UN-Water, about two-thirds — 65% for water and 62% for sanitation — of countries include water and sanitation as human rights in their constitutions, yet a broad interpretation of the recognition could mean those figures are much lower in practice. While the coronavirus crisis has put the need for adequate WASH services into sharp focus, it has also highlighted the many places — including hospitals and households in Iraq, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe — where the human right to water and sanitation is not being recognized.

“The U.N. should be working much harder to have oversight [of the resolution] at the High-level Political Forum process or universal periodic review process or another human rights mechanism,” Klasing said.

But the resolution has had an impact on utilities, Oldfield said, noting that it has enabled them to better manage tariff structures. Following the resolution, South Africa in 2001 began to provide 25 liters of free water per person per day, for example, and Ghana in 2002 brought in “lifeline tariffs” to keep costs of water lower for domestic customers. “So I think [WASH as a human right] is great in a different way rather than a global advocacy way,” Oldfield said, adding that there has been more impact on a local level as opposed to a global level.

How to push progress

To see more progress in the realization of WASH as a human right ahead of the 2030 SDG deadline, Oldfield recommended that the U.N. and international donor community support electoral processes around the world with information around WASH.

“Governments and service providers ... need to understand their obligations and responsibilities to reach everyone with water and sanitation.”

— Louisa Gosling, senior WASH manager, WaterAid

“Try to find ways to strengthen the voices of civil society organizations to encourage their elected leaders to prioritize WASH as a human right,” he said, adding that the “top-level air cover” of the resolution and the 10th anniversary provide a great opportunity to do just that.

In a toolkit on how to campaign for WASH during an election, End Water Poverty recommends creating coalitions and developing joint messages, writing to candidates, and hosting roundtables to ensure those elected understand the importance of WASH and providing access to it. This could impact the likelihood of its realization as a human right.

Gosling suggested using the principles of accountability, access to information, and participation. “By advocating specifically on these principles things can get better,” she said. In practice, this could mean putting complaints mechanisms in place to hold service providers to account or running an initiative like End Water Poverty’s Keep Your Promises campaign, which has worked to hold governments accountable to their promises around WASH. “All of these [examples] are using human rights principles to put pressure on politicians and service providers to fulfil their responsibilities,” Gosling said.

For Klasing, the affordability of water needs to be addressed and more investment in water infrastructure in particular needs to be made. Data shows that household tariffs do not cover operation and maintenance costs in 50% of countries and 80% of countries do not have sufficient financing to implement their national WASH targets.

WaterAid is using the 10th anniversary to ask governments to double their investments in providing clean water and good hygiene amid the COVID-19 pandemic to those most in need.

“Governments and service providers — like utilities [and] small businesses — need to understand their obligations and responsibilities to reach everyone with water and sanitation that is safe, accessible, affordable, available, and culturally acceptable. And they need the capacity and resources to do this,” Gosling said, adding that this is where NGOs can help.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.