Sunday, June 17, 2012

Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation as a Human Right

The right to water is a fundamental human right because water is essential for human life. No one can survive without access to clean, safe drinking water. Yet millions of children around the world die every day from polluted water and diseases spread by dirty water. Control over water is often related to questions of power that is easily abused particularly in conflicts between different peoples.

Problems of water are often portrayed as stemming only from natural phenomena such as drought, climate change, or the scarcity of water. But most water shortages and water contamination stem from concrete human actions or policies. Rather than focusing only on water shortages, we need to look at the distribution of existing water supplies and who controls them. Rather than blaming contamination of water on poverty, we also need to look at who is polluting water supplies and why regulatory frameworks are not preventing pollution. Recognizing a human right to water is an important step toward holding decision-makers accountable and recognizing the social and political dimensions of water use and management. Fighting for the right to water promotes access to safe water for all. 



U.N. Human Rights Council Affirms Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation as a Human Right

Nearly eight years after the United Nations said that access to safe, sufficient, and affordable water for personal and domestic uses is a human right, the U.N. Human Rights Council affirmed on September 30, 2010, that safe drinking water and sanitation is a human right.

The council said, "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." The resolution was passed by consensus, with the support of the United States representative.

The council resolution comes on the heels of a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution on the right to water and sanitation that was passed on July 28, 2010. In that resolution, the UNGA recognized "the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights."

The Human Rights Council resolution went further than the UNGA resolution by specifying that a right to safe drinking water has been a part of existing international law. It also reaffirms that governments have the primary responsibility for the realization of all human rights, including the right to water. The council recommends that governments pay particular attention to vulnerable and marginalized groups, adopt effective regulatory frameworks for all service providers, and ensure effective remedies for violations.

In a statement released to welcome the resolution, the U.N. Independent Expert on the human right to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, said that by passing the resolution the United Nations now recognizes that the right to water is a legally binding human right, pointing out that "access to water and sanitation are no longer matters of charity."  

According to de Albuquerque, "the right to water and sanitation is a human right, equal to all other human rights, which implies that it is justiciable and enforceable. Hence from today onwards we have an even greater responsibility to concentrate all our efforts in the implementation and full realization of this essential right."

The UNGA and the council resolutions are a significant step forward for the 884 million people around the world who do not have access to clean water and the more than 2.6 billion people who lack basic sanitation. The resolutions are important for the long journey toward actual water access for those who lack it. Governments still have primary responsibility to fulfill these rights for their people. At the same time, to make the right a reality, the international community needs to continue to support — with international aid — those countries that do not have adequate resources.

Both resolutions provide additional tools for UUSC partners around the world to use in their work promoting and defending the right to water, and this is particularly true for UUSC partners whose governments voted "yes" to these resolutions.

Suren Moodliar, the coordinator of UUSC partner Mass Global Action, commented, "Massachusetts Global Action welcomes the U.N. Human Rights Council's step forward to making the human right to water and sanitation a legally binding obligation of member states. We also recognize that rights are not given from above but asserted from below. For this reason, we support grassroots actions to hold public-sector providers of water accountable for guaranteeing this human right. The Human Rights Council's decision assists grassroots struggles by providing a legal foundation on which communities may press claims. In Boston, this will be useful as we call attention to sharp inequalities in local access to water."

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

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