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Human rights to water and sanitation: the importance of universal access

  • Human rights to water and sanitation: the importance of universal access

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Access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene for all is one of the main lines of work of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, more so in 2020, 10 years after the UN General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation. Eliminating inequality and leaving no one behind must become a priority of nations and companies, who have to strive to achieve these goals in a world affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Even though access to water, sanitation and hygiene is a human right, billions of people struggle to access basic services in their daily lives.

This situation can be described in numbers: 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services.

Therefore, as 2020 marks ten years since the United Nations General Assembly recognised the human right to water and sanitation, the importance of access to safe water for all is reaffirmed.

These rights are embodied in the sixth of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, part of the 2030 Agenda, which calls for ensuring water availability and sustainable water resources management.

Human rights to water and sanitation: a 10-year track record

Contrary to what it may seem, although it is possible to ensure access the water, the truth is that maintenance, infrastructure and service assessment are often costly for the population involved, and therefore, they cannot always access this service.

People with no access to improved drinking water sources are forced to depend on surface water sources or unprotected wells, without water quality standards that ensure the water is not polluted. The same thing happens concerning sanitation. The right to water and sanitation requires these services to be available and accessible, safe, acceptable and affordable to all, with no discrimination whatsoever.

2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services

On the 28th of July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly recognised the human right to water and sanitation, emphasising that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to achieve human rights.

But to understand the path that led the Assembly to recognise that right, we have to go back to 2002, when during the 29th session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the importance of free and universal water rights was emphasised, pointing out that everyone is entitled to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, accessible and affordable water. However, it was not until 2008 that the UN Human Rights Council designated the first independent expert on human rights to water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, who would later become the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Ten years have passed since then, and the recognition of this right has been an important milestone regarding the protection and achievement of rights related to water and sanitation.

With this resolution, the Assembly calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries and provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.

The importance of the Sustainable Development Goals

SDG 6 specifically aims to ensure water availability and its sustainable management and sanitation for all.

In 2015, the United Nations Member States approved 17 Goals as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda establishes a plan to achieve these objectives in 15 years and is a universal call to action to end poverty, improve the lives of people and protect the planet.

Within the 2030 Agenda, and stemming from the sustainable development strategy, there are some targets to be met, such as the eradication of poverty, gender equality, decent work, quality education, climate action, and clean water and sanitation.

On the 28th of July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the UN General Assembly recognised the human right to water and sanitation

Precisely the latter one, SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation, is considered a vital and fundamental right. However, to achieve universal access to water and sanitation, it is necessary to place this goal within the political agenda, and it is there where the special rapporteur comes into play, whose primary role is to keep water and sanitation in the political agenda, involving companies, civil society and the general public.

In 2015, in his first report as the new Special Rapporteur on the human rights to drinking water and sanitation to the United Nations General Assembly, Léo Heller established a framework to realise the human rights to water and sanitation. It was at that point that the United Nations Assembly designated the human right to drinking water and the human right to sanitation as separate rights.

The inclusion of SDG 6 on the sustainable management of water and sanitation in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals implies that access to the resource must be universal, and expands the scope of this goal to be international in nature.

This is important since, even though there has been substantial progress in terms of expanding access to drinking water and sanitation, across the world one in three people have no access to safe drinking water and two in five people do not have facilities to wash their hands with soap and water.

Hand hygiene can save lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the vital importance of sanitation, hygiene and proper access to clean water to prevent and contain the spread of diseases and, as the World Health Organization indicates, hand washing is one of the most effective actions that can be implemented to reduce and prevent the spread of disease.

Availability and access to water, sanitation and hygiene services are essential to fight against the virus and preserve the health and well-being of millions of people.

Water and gender inequality

Concerning the human rights to drinking water and sanitation ─ embodied in United Nations Goal 6 ─ one of the groups which are particularly vulnerable are women and girls.

In many countries, there are still no safe sanitation services, nor facilities to allow obtaining water without having to travel a long way. It is them, women and girls, who are in charge of bringing water home and so they have to fetch it, a task that is often very risky.

Moreover, taboos related to menstruation and the use of unhygienic sanitation practices mean important risks for the health of women. In this regard, we cannot lose sight of the aggravating circumstances of women and girls having to practice open defecation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the vital importance of sanitation, hygiene and appropriate access to clean water to prevent disease

Without improved sanitation, the facilities that separate human waste from human contact are unsafe. Thus, people have no choice but to use inadequate communal latrines or practice open defecation. For women and girls, finding a place to relieve themselves outdoors, and waiting until night-time, can make them vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault.

Furthermore, as a result of this lack of facilities, many girls quit school when they start menstruating, so the enrolment rate and access to education by women is low in many countries.

To address the difficulties concerning access to drinking water and sanitation by women and girls, in June 2019 a new dimension on drinking water and gender was introduced within the goal of drinking water and sanitation for all.

Ensuring universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation, therefore, implies an effort by all agents involved. It requires all States to review water resource management, as well as the investment necessary to encourage quality infrastructure that is accessible to all.

Only then will we secure the sustainable resources necessary to live together in a better world, with full availability of water and sanitation for all.

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