"We must understand and accept that water and sanitation services are key to ensure public health"
Last October, Pedro Arrojo was appointed Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation by the United Nations, replacing Léo Heller. With this appointment, he becomes the third person to occupy this position, and the first Spanish person to become a United Nations Special Rapporteur.
Pedro Arrojo is a Doctor in Physics and Professor Emeritus in Economic Analysis, and his research has focused on water economics. He is the author of seventy books, about one hundred articles, and has participated in countless conferences.
Arrojo has been a Unidas Podemos Party Member of the Spanish Parliament for the past few years, representing the Zaragoza constituency. He has been active in the water sector since 2001, when he led the opposition to the Spanish National Hydrological Plan.
Now, after his appointment during the 45th session of the Human Rights Council, held in Geneva, he faces the challenges of the human rights to water and sanitation in a context of a global crisis where COVID-19 and climate change are the biggest challenges to tackle.
Water and soap will continue to be essential to prevent disease and will continue to save hundreds of thousands of lives globally
First of all, congratulations on your appointment. What does this new responsibility mean for you, and what are your objectives as you accept it?
It is a great honour, but also a responsibility that is both overwhelming and exciting. In short, it offers me the possibility of focusing on my United Nations work the knowledge and experience that I have nurtured throughout my life, both in my job as a university researcher, from the interdisciplinary approach fostered by the New Water Culture Foundation (Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua), and in my role as a committed citizen in close collaboration with social movements.
I intend to focus on multiple objectives, but I always insist on the need to link the fight for the human rights to drinking water and sanitation with restoring the good status of aquatic ecosystems and ensuring their sustainability. I plan to design my mandate's profile and objectives within the framework of the current triple global crisis – climate, public health and democratic governance – imposed on us by climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and financialization of life. To do it, it will be essential to work closely with other mandates and special rapporteurs (environment, adequate housing, public health, extreme poverty, toxic pollution, violence against women, indigenous peoples, migrants, etc.) as well as UN organisations and agencies such as UN Women, the WHO, UNICEF and UNESCO. I will pay special attention to collaborating with UN Water to strengthen the human rights approach that, in my understanding, should oversee the important role that it can and must play globally, from a perspective of the general interest of humankind, above any national or business interests.
Moving forward towards achieving the human rights to water and sanitation requires giving them priority over other uses and interests
In this regard, how do you think that your trajectory in the water sector in Spain will help you in your role?
I think there are two things that will help me a lot: my interdisciplinary work, from the vision of the New Water Culture which I contributed to develop; and my commitment to social movements, which allowed me to get to know the perspective of those that experience the problems. As I usually say, those affected by different sorts of water problems may not always be right as to the things they say or propose, but without a doubt, they know perfectly well the problems they endure. Therefore, it is essential to listen to them carefully if we want to understand the problems and create solutions that are fair and effective. The keys to addressing most water problems do not usually lie in technical issues, which without a doubt are important, but in citizen participation and dialogue among stakeholders. In this regard, for example, moving forward towards achieving the human rights to drinking water and sanitation requires giving priority to those human rights over other uses and interests, embracing the gender vision that UN Women promotes (after all, they are usually the ones in charge of care and face first-hand the challenge of providing drinking water in impoverished families), empowering those who are in vulnerable situations, and committing firmly to social dialogue since it is in the general interest.
Water and sanitation services are key to ensure public health, and therefore, they are key for our public health care system
What have been your first actions as the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation?
I took over the mandate on November 1, 2020, and, amid the pandemic, I thought it was an urgent priority to call on all governments to ban water shutoffs to vulnerable families. I was advised to seize the opportunity of World Toilet Day, celebrated on November 19, and that is what I did. The Statement, which was supported by another twenty-two mandates, emphasised the urgency of making the ban effective as the pandemic peaks. I insisted, however, on the need to turn the current challenge into an opportunity, by transforming the urgent need driven by the fight against the virus into a permanent benefit, with legal and regulatory changes as needed. Changes that guarantee a minimum amount of water for daily use, such as it happens in the Spanish cities of Seville or Cadiz, an expression of human rights in action, affecting people who have problems to pay, any time and under any circumstances, whether there is a pandemic or not. At the same time as the Statement was issued, we launched an ambitious project to report, condemn and monitor water shutoffs affecting vulnerable families through a global mailbox. The theme of this project was Water and sanitation: human rights and social shield.
How would you define the importance of access to water and sanitation, and more so in times of COVID-19?
As I mentioned, my first initiatives as the UN Special Rapporteur dealt with this issue. Obviously, water and soap, together with using a mask, distance and ventilation have been and are key to prevent infection until the vaccines are here. But even when those vaccines arrive, not everybody will have access to them, so water and soap will continue to be essential to prevent the spread of disease and will continue to save hundreds of thousands of lives across the world.
We must not forget that currently an estimated 3 billion people do not even have a sink or washbasin in their home environment to wash their hands frequently, and that some 4.5 billion do not have a toilet or even a simple latrine at home. We must not forget either that this type of problem is not exclusive in remote countries. We only need to remember how the first outbreaks of the second and deadly wave of the pandemic started in Spain, affecting seasonal fruit pickers in the region of Aragón and in the province of Lerida, who lived in crowded conditions and without access to proper water, sanitation and hygiene services to prevent infection. And we should not forget either our responsibility as Europeans, concerning the inhumane living conditions of refugees stuck in Greece and Turkey, whom we keep as far as possible from our homes, in cramped living quarters and without basic water, sanitation and hygiene services to fight the pandemic.
This health and economic crisis is holding back the progress made in terms of water and sanitation in the past years. What do you think should be the priorities at this time, and which tools should be used to tackle them?
The pandemic has been causing, and will cause in the future, not only pain because of the impact on health, but also an unprecedented economic downturn, as well as the aggravation of inequalities, poverty, and hence, the vulnerability of millions of families across the world. In other words, those who were already poor are and will be even poorer, at the same time as the number of impoverished people and families will increase. On the other hand, we can expect fewer funds available, both to implement improvements in water and sanitation services themselves, and to cooperate in this area with impoverished countries. All of this could lead to, according to the financing logic that led to the so-called austerity policies in the 2008 crisis, another wave of social cuts and a new wave of privatisation of services; at the same time, a higher level of non-payment of water bills could lead to stricter tariff policies. If this way of thinking becomes the norm, repeating the errors of our recent past, I think the socio-economic crisis would take a turn for the worse and we might see the end of the European Union.
Having water and sanitation services as universal public services, above and beyond any other interests, should be the core objective
Fortunately, and although nobody recognises it, the approaches of Modern Monetary Theory – which were flatly rejected in 2008 – are becoming more accepted, out of sheer need. In this vision of the economy, the State must assume the challenge of financing and leading, to start, an action plan for the pandemic, which in Spain took the shape of the first state of alarm, the lockdown and the so-called "social shield", that is, measures to protect the most vulnerable. More recently, the unsuccessful process of easing restrictions, under the short-sighted pressure to "save" the summer, forced Spain to enter a second state of alarm, with a contradictory extension of social protection measures, within the framework of a hesitant strategy that hinders ending the health crisis, and therefore, the economic crisis, something that Asian countries have been able to do. In any event, once we overcome the pandemic with the new vaccines, the public sector should enter a second, decisive phase, promoting and financing a Green Socio-economic Plan, something like the New Green Deal, leading the energy transition to address ongoing climate change. This time, nobody has questioned the need to assume an unprecedented increase in public debt to tackle the pandemic, and even the European Union itself seems determined to launch, with multiple contradictions and hesitations, the European New Green Deal, based on levels of public debts unthinkable until recently which, some way or another, will be monetised to a great extent with the support of the European Central Bank. Something unexpected...
In this context, however, the challenge, beyond the energy transition, would be to include a strong social component that enables the consolidation of the democratic principles Europe purportedly stands for. The pandemic has laid bare many embarrassing things, at the same time as it teaches us valuable lessons. For starters, it has laid bare our individual and collective vulnerability to the virus, underscoring the need to strengthen our public health system. Today it is clear that it is not acceptable to leave anyone out, and not only because of humanitarian and fairness reasons, but because it is critical if we want to be effective in the fight against the virus. That vulnerability goes beyond income, race or religion, and it is not possible to marginalise the poorest by reinforcing borders; the virus travelled this time by plane, even in business class, throughout the world. In this context, almost nobody questions the fact that a good portion of public funds is directed towards strengthening the public health system. Therefore, this is the context where we have to consider water and sanitation challenges. We must understand and accept that water and sanitation services are key to ensure public health, and therefore, for our public health system, beyond those services being a municipal responsibility. Having water and sanitation services as universal public services, above and beyond any other interests, legitimate as they may be, should be the core objective, linked to a broad consensus around the need to strengthen our public health system, as it is in the general interest, non-profit oriented, and with the objective of ensuring everybody's health, nothing more and nothing less. From the perspective of the Modern Monetary Theory, that EU Green Socio-economic Plan should, as I mentioned, have a strong social component, with the pertinent financing effort. Only then will we be able to regain trust on a Europe that does not leave anyone behind and guarantees human rights as a crucial democratic priority.
Many governments have banned water service disconnections during the pandemic. What is your assessment of this action? Should it be extended beyond the current context?
As I said before, almost nobody has questioned the wise decision of the Spanish and other governments to implement social protection measures together with strict lockdown measures, including banning water shutoffs, an issue that deserves explicit and clear recognition. Nevertheless, the weakness of our beliefs became obvious when, once the lockdown was over, the government yielded to the pressures of certain business sectors and let them disconnect water services to those who do not pay, even if they are impoverished families at risk of social exclusion.
We should ask ourselves: what is the point of insisting on the need to wash our hands with water and soap, for everyone, and in everyone's interest, if after you shut off the water to those who, being in a more vulnerable situation, have a higher risk of becoming infected? Today, the new wave of the pandemic kills as much as or more than the first wave, and we lack social measures in this regard.
In any event, beyond activating again social protection measures such as banning water shutoffs to impoverished families (certified by municipal social services), I will insist over and over on my suggestion of learning from the lessons of the pandemic to turn this challenge into an opportunity, and enshrine in law that those who have difficulties to pay will have access to at least a minimum amount of water for daily use, to fulfil the human rights to water and sanitation, both in these difficult times, and whenever we manage to overcome the pandemic.
Achieving water, sanitation and hygiene goals in the SDGs requires unprecedented financing levels. How can these investments be secured by governments, international organisations and the private sector?
As I mentioned, public investment in water and sanitation should be part of the priority we have to give in the public budget (at the national, regional, and local level) to strengthening the public health system. It strikes me that nobody questions that general priority, with special emphasis on primary care, and yet we forget to demand financing for water and sanitation services, on the basis of reforming and reinforcing municipal funding for it. Without a doubt, we are still suffering in Spain, in an incomprehensible silence, the gradual sacrifice of local finance, at the hands of the wrongly called austerity. And I say wrongly called, because austerity does not mean to sacrifice what is essential for a decent life, nor what is fair, and therefore should be a priority, but to let go of whatever is superfluous or a luxury; and having adequate water and sanitation services that guarantee human and citizens' rights should not be considered superfluous or a luxury. Therefore, I believe it is essential to strengthen local financial capacities to guarantee, always ensuring municipal autonomy, management that is financially sound, transparent, effective and efficient, in relation to basic services, such as water and sanitation. This must be done, I insist, ensuring consistency with the general interest, non-profit oriented, essential to manage the public health system that we so admire and defend today.
We should not expect the private sector to finance and manage the responsibilities of public bodies, in this case local governments
Without a doubt, that will imply mobilising economic resources for public works and technological developments that will open up opportunities and benefits for the private sector. However, the same as it happens in the health care sector, we should not expect the private sector to finance and manage the responsibilities of public bodies, in this case, local governments. Water and sanitation undoubtedly need investment, but above all, they need regulation that strengthens public institutions with regard to efficiency, transparency and public participation. To this effect, we must not forget that we are talking about water and sanitation services that human and citizens' rights depend on, which, due to their nature, should be universal, the same as health care. Transforming citizens into mere clients will not solve water and sanitation problems, and even less the problems of those 2.2 billion people in the world who do not have access to drinking water currently and those 4.5 billion people who do not have the most basic sanitation services.