A Human Right: Water and Sanitation

On July 28, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring the human right to safe, clean drinking water and sanitation by a 122 to 0 vote. The resolution calls on states and international organisations to provide the financial resources and technical support to guarantee this right.

Today 884 million people, that is one of every eight people in the world, lack access to safe drinking water, and each year 3.5 million die from diseases spread by contaminated water. Among them, more than forty percent are children under five, and lack of access to clean water kills more children annually than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Lack of sanitation is a problem of equal scale: 2.6 billion people – 40% of the world population – have no access to basic sanitation.

After decades of UN declarations, European Parliament resolutions and various countries’ initiatives to solve the problem, the UN vote on the Bolivian proposal is historic. However, the realities that threaten its implementation cannot be underestimated.

Forty countries abstained from the vote, including Canada, the UK and the US. In their view, the resolution was premature since it did not take into account the work under way by the Human Rights Council’s independent expert. Instead, the UN representative said, the text could undermine that work because it described the right to water and sanitation in a way not reflected in existing international law. And though it is true that the right to water is handled in inconsistent ways throughout the world, this does not change the fact that access to water and sanitation is essential for the full enjoyment of life. As the Bolivia representative noted, the UN vote declaring it a human right is an affirmation of this fact.

But it is only a first step, after which a concerted effort at implementation will be necessary, and given the scope of the task, all countries will be required to take action. An earlier effort, the Millenium Development Goals (MDG), enjoyed such a broad commitment, yet, primary goals such as education and maternal health remain distant; in Sub-Saharan Africa, only 62 of the 118 countries are on track to halve hunger by 2015, another primary goal. Thus, commitment is not enough. Action is required.

Furthermore, water and sanitation are not among the primary MDGs, at least not explicitly, a situation that makes them more prone to be ignored. This could be changed at the next MDG meeting in New York on September 20-22, and would be the logical next step after the UN vote.

Water and sanitation could also benefit from the successful initiatives brought by the MDG. The development of Millenium Villages are among them, where local know-how and scientific research combine to fight diseases and hunger, among other challenges. Implemented in 2005 by American academics in countries like Cameroon, Senegal and Kenya, they proved to be a valuable experiment, and now need partnerships and funding to continue their work and to extend the concept to other countries.

In the foreword of the report issued in view of the upcoming MDG summit, Ban Ki-Moon, general secretary of the UN, pointed out that the world has the resources and knowledge to give even to the poorest countries the means to reach the MDGs. And, as he said in a recent speech at the European Forum in Austria, given how quickly twenty billion dollars were raised to fight the economic crisis, there are no excuses not to find the far less important amounts needed to achieve the MDGs.

Pascale Brevet

Smets, Henri – La reconnaissance officielle du droit à l’eau en France et à l’international – 2007, Agence Française du Développement

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