2. The Human Right to Water and Sanitation

Learning Objectives

  • Identify and critically reflect on the different approaches to the human right to water and sanitation.
  • Reflect about the potential of the notion of the right to water and sanitation for transformatory actions (political change/transformation).

Key Concepts

Human right to water, sanitation, equity

1. Introduction to the material

This submodule analyzes different understanding and narratives about the human right to water and sanitation (HRWS). Questions as who is referring to the HRWS, with which purposes, and through which practices and tools, will be discussed. Specific attention will be devoted to unravel the relation between different HRWS narratives and equity issues, looking at its political implications.

In particular the session analyses three different HRWS narratives:

  • International organizations (UN and the SDGs agenda)
  • Social movements against the privatization of water services
  • The private sector (private water operators)

Each narrative is introduced by a short video lecture, followed by a video portraying the narrative in action and by the discussion of reading material and official documents presenting that specific narrative.

In the final part of the session, similarities and differences between the three narratives are discussed, particularly in terms of the relation between the HRWS and equity issues.

This submodule has been developed by Dr. Emanuele Fantini. Emanuele works as senior researcher at UNESCO-IHE. His main research project “Visualising waters, unveiling powers in Ethiopia” analyses the consequences of current processes of state formation, development and economic growth in terms of contested water governance and water justice in Ethiopia.

Watch the following video for an introduction to the module and topic:

2. The UN and the HRWS

In July 2010 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life and all human rights”. It also called upon states and international organisations “to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, through international assistance and cooperation, in particular to developing countries, in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all”.

Along the same path, in September 2010 also the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation, specifying that “the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity”.

As acknowledged by the Canadian water activist Maude Barlow “these two resolutions represented an extraordinary breakthrough in the international struggle for the right to safe drinking water and sanitation and a crucial milestone in the fight for water justice”[1](Barlow 2006: 4). In fact, prior to these resolutions, water and sanitation had not been explicitly acknowledged as human rights at international level. Representatives of national governments, NGOs, social movements and the private sector had been fiercely discussing about the wording of the final declarations of international conferences such as the World Water Forum: should water be qualified as fundamental human right, basic human need or strategic economic good?

3. SDG 6 and the HRWS

The two UN resolutions have supported and legitimised explicit reference to the human right to water and sanitation in international policies and fora. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) seem a good example of this practice. In fact the human right to water and sanitation is among the few human rights explicitly mentioned in the SDGs main document.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes a dedicated goal on water and sanitation (SDG 6) that sets out to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” SDG 6 does not focus only on drinking water and sanitation, addressing the whole water cycle management, wastewater and ecosystem resources.

Two targets of SDG6 are clearly linked to the content of the human right to water and sanitation and resonate the wording of the 2010 UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions.

Target 6.1

“By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all”

Target 6.2

“By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations”

In describing SDG 6 and its targets UN Water affirms that:

“The target is specific, measurable and action-oriented and supports several other targets without duplicating them. Note that experts consider universal access to a basic water service achievable by 2030, but universal access to “safe and affordable” unlikely to be achieved in all countries”.

Similarly they note that “experts consider ending open defecation and ensuring universal access to a basic water service achievable by 2030, but universal access to “adequate” is unlikely to be achieved in all countries”.

4. SDG 6 and equity

Now watch this official UN video on “The Sustainable Development Goals Explained by an Expert: Clean Water and Sanitation” produced in 2015. The video showcases Leanne Burney (Water and Sanitation Expert UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs) explaining SDG 6.

Now watch this talk by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water and Sanitation, Ms. Catarina De Albuquerque, now Executive chair of the global partnership “Sanitation and Water for All”, addressing the 2015 Stockholm Water Week plenary. The video has been produced by Sanitation and Water for All.

(Note: watch from 12:50 to 16:35)

5. Discussion: the UN and the HRWS

Watch this video summarising the main points of the first section and compare them with your notes.

6. The European Citizens initiative on the human right to water

    • 2.2 The European Citizens initiative on the human right to water

Watch the following clip produced by the European Citizens’ Initiative on the human right to water in 2012.

7. The Coalition Against Water Privatisation in South Africa

Even long before the explicit recognition by the UN of the human right to water and sanitation, the 1996 South African Constitution (section 27) acknowledged that “1) everyone has the right to have access to … (b) sufficient food and water; 2) the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights”.

The constitutional recognition of the human right to water has legitimised and empowered social mobilisations against neo-liberal policies promoted by South Africa national and local authorities, such as the privatisation of water services or prepaid water meters.

Now watch this video presenting the struggle of the Coalition Against Water Privatisation against prepaid water meters in Johannesburg in the name of the right to water. The video has been produced in 2009 by the Coalition Against Water Privatisation, Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Anti-Privatisation Forum, Friction Films, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

8. Discussion: social movements and the HRWS

Watch this video summarising the main points of the section and compare them with your notes.

9. Private companies and the HRWS

The position of the private sector on the human right to water has not been an easy one and has been evolved in the last decades.

Private sectors has denied the existence of such a right and lobbied against its explicit recognition in international fora such as the World Water Forums.

To have an idea of the evolution and ambiguities of private sector positions have a look at these video.

In the first video (February 2013) Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck denies HRWS as an “extremist position” arguing for assigning to water economic value.

In this second video (Nestlé, march 2013) he later returns on his position recognising water as human right, presenting his approach to deal with water scarcity: recognising water as precious resources, better valuing water to incentive investments and better management

Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck: Water is a Human Right.

10. Corporate social responsibility and the HWRS

In the last years, the reference to the HRWS has been institutionalised within private sectors documents and initiatives, often in partnership with the UN.

Aquafed the international association of private water operators has several documents on the HRWS

The UN global compact has launched the CEO Water mandate The CEO Water Mandate is a special initiative of the UN Secretary-General and the UN Global Compact, providing a multi-stakeholder platform for the development, implementation, and disclosure of corporate water sustainability policies and practices. The UN Global Compact is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative with over 7000 corporate participants and other stakeholders from more than 140 countries. The UN Global Compact is based on ten principles in the areas of human rights, labour standards, the environment, and anti-corruption

They have a guide about respecting the human right to water and sanitation

They launched the idea of water stewardship that explicitly refers to the HRWS

Water stewardship also supports broader social and environmental goals, notably the realization of human rights and the anticipated Sustainable Development Goals. By implementing water stewardship, companies inherently advance these broader objectives. However, there are also some critical considerations to keep in mind to ensure that stewardship practice aligns with efforts to advance these broader goals.

Ensuring that human rights are upheld and protected is a key consideration embedded throughout the Water Stewardship Progression. You do this primarily by actively respecting human rights, according to the UN Guiding Principles. First, you meet basic responsibilities of providing WASH services in their workplaces and ensuring their activities do not infringe on communities’ rights by identifying and responding to identified impacts. You can then move on to support initiatives that actively fulfill human rights.

Contributing to the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals

Water is also a critical component of the anticipated Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. In fact, water and sanitation are expected to form a dedicated goal in the upcoming SDGs because of their great importance and the degree to which they inform and support the realization of many other critical development goals. Your company can actively support these efforts through water stewardship.

A practical example of water stewardship

Watch the clip: Clean Water It’s A Human Right. The video was produced by Blue Chalk Media for the Pepsico Foundation in 2015 and showcases the story of a project funded by the Pepsico Foundation in Colombia.

11. Discussion: private companies and the HRWS

Watch this video summarising the main points of the section and compare them with your notes.

12. Concluding remarks

Now you can watch this video, recalling and comparing the main elements of the three approaches presented above, in order to present the main point of the submodule: the human right to water is a contested idea; the way this right is conceptualised has practical consequences and influences on the way this right and equity in its enjoyment are promoted and supported. Particular conceptualisation of the right to water legitimise specific political projects and actions.

13. Final greetings


Key Readings

Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

      • Which are the issues identifies as most pressing issues in relation to the right to water and sanitation?
      • Which are the solutions?
      • How the HRWS is related to these solutions?
      • How does the video represent the people entitled to the right to water and sanitation? Which geographical and social contexts do they seem belonging to?
      • What kind of solution and actions are envisaged to achieve SDG6 targets and the HRWS?
      • How does Ms. De Albuquerque conceive of the added value of the human right approach in the SDGs compared to the MDGs
      • How does Ms. De Albuquerque conceive of the implications of the human right approach when addressing issues of equality and inequality
      • Which are the issues identified as main problems/obstacles to the achievement of the Human right to water and sanitation?
      • How equity issues are presented and addressed by the water activists?
      • What kind of solution and actions are envisaged to achieve the HRWS?
      • How they right holders are presented?
      • Which are the issues identified as main obstacles to the achievement of the SDGs targets on access to water and sanitation?

Further Readings

Other related International Waters Lessons and Submodules


Next submodule: Financing Access

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