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Practising the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation for sustainability

Published on: 03/03/2015

Everybody has a right to access to clean, safe, affordable and reliable drinking water and sanitation services. But how to translate a human right into practice? The handbook on the human rights to water and sanitation provides guidance.

The Handbook (available via the link below) serves as a practical guide: it translates the often complicated legal language into practical information for officials and professionals in civil society organisations. It explains the meaning and legal obligations that stem from the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, and provides clarifications, recommendations, examples of good (and bad) practices, but also checklists and clarifications so users can analyse how they are complying with the rights. The handbook is available in English, Arabic, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

This book was published by the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation (Catarina de Albuquerque, who held her term between 2008 and 2014) and was prepared with the support of many individuals and organisations. On the one hand, a group of experts, researchers and scholars led by Virginia Roaf. Then a task group consisting of WaterAid, WASH United, End Water Poverty, Sustainable Futures Initiative, and UNICEF, along with Kerstin Danert from the Rural Water Supply Network. Furthermore, an Advisory Committee (composed of Helena Alegre, Ger Bergkamp, Maria Virginia BrĂ¡s Gomes, Clarissa Brocklehurst, Victor Dankwa, Ursual Eid, Ashfaq Khalfan, Alejo Molinari, Tom Palakudiyil, Frederico Properzi, Paul Reiter, Cecilia Scharp and Michael Windfuhr) was put in place. Several regional consultations (in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe) were also organised to enable the author to get first-hand information on good practices, challenges and the way to overcome them in different parts of the world. Two online consultations (one organised by the Rural Water Supply Network and another by HuriTALK) were equally organised

De Albuquerque: "International human rights law obliges States to work towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation while prioritizing those most in need. Water and sanitation facilities should not only be available and accessible to all, they should also be affordable for the poorest while ensuring quality and safety to the health of users. All these dimensions are captured in the human rights legal framework. Sustainability is a fundamental human rights principle. It is essential to the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation. (...) Once services and facilities have been improved, the positive change must be maintained and slippages and retrogression must be avoided."

The acknowledgement of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation  is a crucial step in the long term vision of universal and sustainable access.

Patrick Moriarty, CEO of IRC, an international think-and-do-tank that works to find sustainable solutions to the worldwide water and sanitation crisis, congratulated the UN team's initiative with this publication. "The recognition of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation was a crucial step in the long-term vision of universal and sustainable access. It is particularly important in that it unambiguously puts the onus where it belongs: with government - national and local. Yet, as we all know, human rights are all too often disrespected. Working out, on the ground, how to put the rights into practice is therefore a critical and defining role for anyone - and especially NGOs - working in our sector. These booklets are therefore an immensely valuable resource - a tool to help make the leap from good intentions to measurable and impactful actions. In this, civil society and NGOs like IRC have a crucial role in both supporting governments, and holding them to account, for delivering the human right: ensuring that sufficient resources are provided and necessary capacities developed".

Putting it into practice

How to bring these rights to water and sanitation into real practice? Remi Kempers, Programme Manager Water at Both ENDS, believes that: "first people should be made aware of their rights, and understand what their national laws on water, sanitation and hygiene are. For example, in Bangladesh we use the Right to Information Act to ask the government to provide information on access to water and sanitation services. Then we use the information in workshops, rallies, articles, media. With the available data people can address the government (mostly via the local government) and ask for more provisions of good quality. Secondly, you should analyse the current laws and see how they relate to standards and principles as set in the international Right to Water and Sanitation, and identify the gaps. Often these gaps occur through translation of the human rights framework into national laws, or in the implementation of laws that are of good quality, as often a lot is dependent on the budgets which are available at local, district and national levels. You need NGOs who are supporting people and peoples' organisations like women self-help groups to wake up the local population and make them aware of their rights. Sometimes pressure from higher and often better educated government officials is needed to set actions by local government into motion".

What can NGOs do to support this? Kempers: "NGOs can deliver and organise programmes that empower local communities to better understand their rights, and hold governments accountable, so they will start providing the services needed".

Sjef Ernes, Managing Director of Aqua for All, believes in the role of government. Ernes: "Acknowledgement of access to safe water and sanitation as a human right addresses the responsibility of (local) government to give priority to this public good. This opportunistic thinking means that politicians have an opportunity to go for it, to score with providing tailor-made solutions which are fundable and feasible, and create services that comply with the human right to water and sanitation. The cost-benefit ratio of sound access to safe water and sanitation is 1:8 up to 1:35. It is by far the best investment governments, private sector and consumers can make," he concludes.

Practical booklets

The Handbook is presented in nine booklets, each of which addresses a particular area of activity:

  • Booklet 1: Introduction
  • Booklet 2: Frameworks (Legislative, regulatory and policy frameworks)
  • Booklet 3: Financing (Financing, budgeting and budget-tracking)
  • Booklet 4: Services (Planning processes, service providers, service levels and settlements)
  • Booklet 5: Monitoring
  • Booklet 6: Justice (Access to justice)
  • Booklet 7: Principles
  • Booklet 8: Checklists
  • Booklet 9: Sources