Non-governmental Organisations Major Group - 2nd World Water Forum.
Background paper for the workshop 'WATER AS A BASIC NEED'
Human rights and the right
to water and sanitation
Belinda U. Calaguas, WaterAid
The draft Ministerial Declaration recognises water and sanitation as basic human needs, but falls
short of confirming it as basic rights. There is international consensus from past conferences in the
water sector, and from international conventions that water and sanitation are universal human
rights. This Briefing Note gives background information on the position taken by NGOs that there
should be no retreat from the recognition that water and sanitation are basic needs and rights.
1. Human Rights are rights inherent to every individual because they are human beings. They
are universal, indivisible, inter-related and inter-dependent. They are rights recognised
under international law; enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(UDHR) and the covenants that give it legal force. Human rights also represent universal
standards of human development.
2. Human rights covenants and treaties carry obligations upon states that have signed and
ratified them. These obligations are to respect, protect, promote, and work towards the
progressive achievement of the full realisation of the rights covered in the covenant.
Concretely, this could mean the following:
International human rights instruments are incorporated into national constitutions
Policy and legislation in line with the covenants/treaties are developed and passed
Actions are undertaken by the state to fulfil its obligations under the covenant and/or treaty, to the maximum of available resources (its own and through development assistance)
States report on progress in realising the rights for people under
their jurisdiction, and monitor the progress of other states signatories.
3. Human rights can be broadly grouped into three areas:
Rights necessary for survival and dignified living
Rights and freedoms necessary for human dignity, creativity, intellectual and spiritual development
Rights necessary for liberty and physical security
4. Rights carry responsibilities. Individuals have responsibilities to the extent that their
enjoyment of a right should not prevent others from enjoying the same right or impose a
cost on others. Individual responsibilities include sharing in the costs necessary for the
realisation of a right for all.
5. The right to water and sanitation is guaranteed under the following covenants:
1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Ratified or acceded by 135 countries, 57 remaining)
'the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, housing and the continuous improvement of living conditions'
Article 12.1 and 2
'the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of
physical and mental health' full realisation of this right shall include those necessary
for (b) improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene; (c)
prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other
1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Ratified or acceded by 153 countries, 39 remaining)
'ensure to such women [in rural areas] the right: (h) to enjoy adequate living
conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply,
transport and communications.'
1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (Ratified or acceded by 190 countries, 2 remaining)
Article 24.1 and 2
'right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of
healthState parties shall take appropriate measures: (a) to diminish infant
and child mortality;(c) combat disease and malnutrition, including within the
framework of primary health care, through the provision of adequate
nutritious foods and clean drinking water, taking into consideration the dangers
and risks of environmental pollution; (e) ensure that all segments of society, in
particular parents and children, are informed of child health and nutrition, the
advantages of breastfeeding, hygiene and environmental sanitation
6. NGOs, especially those in the water and sanitation sector, could use the international legal framework of human rights and the existing international apparatus of the UN's treaty monitoring bodies to encourage and strengthen a culture of compliance on the right to water and sanitation. NGOs could monitor fulfilment of rights, advocate to create structures, policy changes and budget allocations favouring implementation of rights, help to specify service delivery standards and hold public and private agencies to account for meeting these standards, and enable greater public involvement, especially that of the poor, in ensuring accountability of agencies.
7. Universal standards require local debate. The right to water and sanitation has to be defined locally, with appropriate performance standards that are meaningful to the local population.