A child washes himself in Kallyanpur, a slum in Bangladesh. Sanitation remains the most off-track of all the MDGs: 2.5 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation. Photo by: Kibae Park / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

The U.N. Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals is holding this week its 12th and penultimate meeting in New York. Thirty representatives from U.N. member states are discussing amendments to the so-called “zero draft” document, which they will submit to the 68th U.N. General Assembly in September as a formal SDG proposal document.

But as many water and sanitation NGOs — including the 270-member End Water Poverty campaign coalition and a group of some 300 NGOs that have submitted a co-signed letter — believe, and as U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque has noted, there remains a glaring omission in the document: the human right to water and sanitation.

In its current guise, the document’s preamble fails to mention the human right to water and sanitation alongside other named rights. And while prior meetings suggested human rights would be “mainstreamed” into the SDGs themselves, it remains unclear what this means when the targets and indicators do not fully reflect the standards of the human right to water and sanitation, or the principles of human rights generally.

Last week, the Women’s Major Group submitted edits to the document, suggesting that the human rights standards of “sufficient” and “acceptable” be included among water and sanitation targets and indicators. The organization said: “It is not acceptable to step lower than the existing U.N. resolution on the human right to water and sanitation from 2010.”

"The human rights to water and sanitation guide us in ensuring access to safe, affordable, available, accessible and acceptable water and sanitation for all without discrimination, while progressively eliminating inequalities in achieving universal access,” De Albuquerque said on Tuesday. “The formulation of the SDGs presents an unprecedented opportunity to reaffirm explicitly the human rights to water and sanitation as being indivisible from, and interrelated to, all other human rights."

What is clear is that some states oppose a human rights framework for the water and sanitation SDG. China and Kazakhstan broke cover in the last OWG session to say water and sanitation should be addressed through an “access” rather than a right-based approach.

End Water Poverty joined many other NGOs in rejoicing at the inclusion of a standalone goal on water and sanitation. However, in aiming for policy that will make universal access to water and sanitation a reality, we must transcend the simplistic access approach in favor of the human rights framework.

As is now well understood, the MDGs are marked by failures that must not be repeated. Water and sanitation is an instructive sector in this regard. While the water MDG has been achieved well ahead of the 2015 deadline — thanks largely to advances in China and India — sanitation remains the most off-track of all the MDGs: 2.5 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation, while it is estimated that at current rates of progress, it will take at least until 2030 for sub-Saharan Africa to meet the water MDG, and more than 150 years to reach the sanitation target.

Inequality is at the heart of these failures, which stem from not prioritizing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable. As the U.N. Special Rapporteur has already observed, it’s imperative that the MDG approach is reworked to combat inequality by ensuring a focus on the needs of the poorest and most marginalized — one route to doing so would be creating a target of eliminating open defecation. As Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, warned last week: “The United Nations must not allow the same mistakes to repeat themselves over the next fifteen years.”

Universal access to water and sanitation is a desired outcome. But to move away from the MDG failures, it’s critical that we talk about the processes needed to achieve outcomes, which will overcome the inequalities that inhibit universal access, demand the participation of people and ensure accountability. We must also engage more thoroughly on the standards of what we are lobbying for universal access to. Here, the human right outlines not only a requirement of access, but goes beyond that to include affordability, acceptability, availability and quality.

Crucially — although one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise — this is a framework that in the case of the human right to water and sanitation is referenced explicitly and implicitly in numerous treaties and conventions, reaching back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through to the U.N. General Assembly’s 2010 resolution on the human right to water and sanitation — which ratified existing international law as interpreted by U.N. treaty bodies — the 2012 Rio+20 outcome document, and a 2013 U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution, to name but a few.

The full adoption of the human rights framework for the SDGs will be costly and labor-intensive for all involved. Ensuring participation for the marginalized in planning water and sanitation projects, guaranteeing access to information and accountability, and ensuring that access to water and sanitation is affordable and acceptable to everyone, all raise significant challenges to states in particular, NGOs involved in service provision, and of course for private companies and states ensuring regulation of companies enforces adoption of these human rights standards and principles.

This may be daunting, but in policy discussions where “transformative change” and “no more business-as-usual” have become near clichés, member states should now transform rhetoric into reality. And this, after all, is not asking for anything new. The hundreds of organizations from across the world that join the U.N. Special Rapporteur in calling for the full inclusion of the human right to water and sanitation are merely asking for states to keep the promises they have already made.

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About the author

  • Jamillah Mwanjisi

    Jamillah Mwanjisi is co-chair of End Water Poverty. Based in Nairobi, she also coordinates the Africa-focused State of the Union advocacy group. Previously, Mwanjisi served as executive secretary of the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation, where she helped sign an MoU with the African Ministers Council on Water.