The Right to Water and Sanitation

Compiled by:
Vanessa Rueegger (Institute of Federalism, University of Fribourg, Switzerland)

Executive Summary

The right to water entitles every person to access a sufficient amount of clean and affordable water for personal and domestic use. The right to sanitation is access to, and use of, excreta and wastewater facilities and services that ensure privacy and dignity. Enforcing both the right to water and sanitation is an important condition in protecting the quality of drinking water. Both rights are contained in Art. 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as numerous other important international legal documents. States parties have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to water and sanitation. The right to water and sanitation provides for clear set of principles and goals to guide policy development and implementation through translation into national legislation.

Right to Water in a Nutshell

In a nutshell, the right to water entitles every person to access a sufficient amount of clean and affordable water for personal and domestic use (UN COMMITTEE&CESCR 2002, GC 15).

Right to Sanitation in a Nutshell

In a nutshell, the right to sanitation entitles every person to access to, and use of, excreta and wastewater facilities and services that ensure privacy and dignity, ensuring a clean and healthy living environment for all (COHRE et al. 2008).

Legal Sources of the Right to Water and Sanitation

The right to water and sanitation is an entitlement held by all people, and which has a legal foundation. The primary basis for the right to water and sanitation is Art. 11 para. 1 (right to an adequate standard of living) and Art. 12 para. 1 (right to the highest attainable standard of health) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, or UN-Pact I). The right should also be seen in conjunction with other rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights, foremost among them the right to life and human dignity. Even though the right to water is not mentioned explicitly in the ICESCR, it has been declared to be implicitly contained in the ICESCR by General Comment No. 15 (GC 15) by the interpreting body of the ICESCR, the Committee on economic, social and cultural rights. Although GC 15 is not itself legally binding, it is an authoritative interpretation of the provisions of the ICESCR, which is legally binding on States that have ratified it. The right has also been recognised by a wide range of important international legal documents, such as Art. 14, para. 2 (h) of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discriminations against women (CEDAW) or Art. 24, para. 2 (c) of the Convention on the rights of the Child (UN COMMITTEE&CESCR 2002, GC 15, paras 2-6) (see also water sanitation and gender).

 

Normative Content of the Right to Water and Sanitation

 conradin 2005 right to water

The right to water and sanitation is a universal one - yet, it is not implemented in many parts of the world. Source: CONRADIN (2005) 

Accessibility to water and sanitation means that access to water and sanitation has to be within safe physical reach for all sections of the population and within the immediate vicinity of each household, education institution and workplace. Physical security should not be threatened during access to water and sanitation facilities. The water has to be affordable for all, which means that if a prize is charged it must be affordable in relation to the income of every individual. Access to water and sanitation must be provided in a non-discriminatory manner to all sections of the population.

A sufficient amount of water means that it must be sufficient and continuous (regular) for personal and domestic uses, which normally includes: drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, personal and household hygiene. The amount should correspond to the guidelines of the World Health Organisation. Some individuals and groups may require additional water due to health, climate or work conditions.

The quality of the water has to be as such that it is free from microorganisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person’s health (see also health and hygiene issues). It should also be of an acceptable colour, odour and taste for each personal or domestic use (UN COMMITTEE&CESCR 2002, GC 15, paras 10-12).

 

Access to adequate sanitation plays a fundamental role in assuring human dignity and protecting the quality of drinking water. States parties have an obligation to progressively extend safe sanitation services (UN COMMITTEE&CESCR 2002, GC 15, para 29; ALBUQUERQUE 2009).

 

State Parties Obligations

States parties to the Covenant have three general obligations with regard to the right to water:

 

  1. Obligation to respect, which requires that States parties refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of the right to water and sanitation (e. g. denying access to water for certain groups, arbitrarily destroying water services or polluting water resources).
  2. Obligation to protect, which requires State parties to prevent third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to water and sanitation (e. g. prevent abuses by third parties through putting in place effective regulatory systems, take measures to prevent third parties from polluting or inequitably extracting from water resources).
  3. Obligation to fulfil, which requires State parties to facilitate (take positive measures to assist), promote (take steps to ensure that there is appropriate education concerning use of water etc.) and provide (deliver water to individuals or groups when they are unable to realise that right themselves by the means at their disposal) the right to water and sanitation. It requires States parties to adopt the necessary measures directed towards the full realisation of the right to water and sanitation (e. g. full recognition of the right within the national order, adopt and implement a national water strategy etc.).

 

Even though GC 15 recognises that some States might not be able to realise the right to water and sanitation immediately, they have a constant and continuing duty to work as expeditiously and effectively as possible towards the full realisation of the right to water. States parties should also adopt comprehensive and integrated strategies and programmes to ensure the sustainability of its water resources so that there is sufficient and safe water for present and future generations.

The ICESCR recognises as an international obligation that State parties cooperate and assist each other to achieve the full realisation of the right to water and sanitation. Water should never be used as an instrument of political and economic pressure (UN COMMITTEE&CESCR 2002, GC 15, paras 17-36).

 

Contributions of the Right to Water and Sanitation

When implemented, the right to water and sanitation can make the following contributions:

  • Improved accountability: It establishes access to water and sanitation as a legal entitlement, which provides a basis for individuals and groups to hold governments and other actors accountable. It also provides a base for actors within government to hold each other accountable to the objective of realising the right.
  • Focus on vulnerable and marginalised groups: Focuses on the need to prioritise access to basic water and sanitation services to all, including those who are normally excluded.
  • Increased participation in decision-making: Provides for genuine participation of communities in decision-making on water and sanitation and obliges states to install effective remedies for citizens to call for their rights.
  • Individual and community empowerment: Strengthens individual and community struggles for access to basic services (COHRE et al. 2007).

Implementing the Right to Water and Sanitation

The right to water and sanitation alone is not going to solve the water and sanitation crisis. It does not replace other development strategies but needs to be used in conjunction with them. The strength of the right to water and sanitation is that it provides a clear set of principles and goals to guide policy development, which then needs to be translated into specific frameworks for implementation adapted to the needs and conditions in each country. National recognition of the right to water and sanitation, as well as the establishment of comprehensive national legislation and recognition of its justiciability in front of national courts are crucial steps for an effective implementation of the right (see also creating policies and a legal framework and building an institutional framework)

Key actors in the national context are: The government as policy maker, regulator and allocator of resources, the government as service provider (or private service providers), independent public monitoring bodies, individuals and communities, civil society organisations, industrial and agricultural water users, international organisations.

In situations of competing water demands (e. g. private water users, industry, agriculture), governments have to prioritise the delivery of basic water services and sanitation (COHRE et al. 2007; ZIEGLER 2001) (see also command and control tools).

References Library

COHRE (Editor); AAAS (Editor); SDC (Editor); UN-HABITAT (Editor) (2007): Manual on the Right to Water and Sanitation. Geneva: Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE). URL [Accessed: 22.04.2012].

COHRE (Editor); WATERAID SDC (Editor); UN-HABITAT (Editor) (2008): Sanitation: A human Rights Imperative. Geneva: Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE).

ZIEGLER, J. (2001): The Right to Food. New York: United Nations (UN). URL [Accessed: 13.03.2012].

Further Readings Library

Reference icon

EL-JAZAIRI, L. (2010): Rights to Water and Sanitation: a Handbook for Activists.. London: Freshwater Action Network (FAN). URL [Accessed: 19.01.2011].

The purpose of this handbook is to help civil society and those working on water and sanitation issues to adopt a human rights-based approach to advocacy, so that they can improve water and sanitation service regulation and provision at international, national and local levels. Directed primarily at community groups, human rights NGOs, rights-based development practitioners and aid workers, this handbook aims to strengthen human rights-based advocacy by providing innovative and practical suggestions that activists and organisations can use in their work. It also acts as a resource guide for finding further information.


Reference icon

COHRE (Editor); AAAS (Editor); SDC (Editor); UN-HABITAT (Editor) (2007): Manual on the Right to Water and Sanitation. Geneva: Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE). URL [Accessed: 22.04.2012].

The manual is a tool-written in non-legal language to assist policy makers and practitioners develop strategies for implementing the human right to water and sanitation and assist governments to operationalise their legal obligations and achieve de MDGs.


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COHRE (Editor); WATERAID SDC (Editor); UN-HABITAT (Editor) (2008): Sanitation: A human Rights Imperative. Geneva: Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE).

A document defining sanitation in human rights terms, describing the value of treating sanitation as a human rights issue and outlining priority actions for governments, international organisations and civil society.


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UN COMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC (Editor); SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS (CESCR GC 15) (Editor) (2002): General Comment No. 15 (2002): The Right to Water (arts. 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), 20 January 2003 (E/C.12/2002/11) . CESCR, GC 15.

The United Nations General Comment on the right to water.


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WINKLER, I.; DIM (Editor) (2011): Lebenselixier und Letztes Tabu. Die Menschenrechte auf Wasser und Sanitärversorgung. (= Essay, 11). Berlin: Deutsches Institut fuer Menschnerechte (DIM). URL [Accessed: 02.05.2011].

This essay is about the human right to water and sanitation that has been established in 2010. The author shows the development of the right and discusses possibilities how it could be realised.

Language: German


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UNW DPAC (n.y.): The Human Right to Water and Sanitation Reader. Zaragoza: UN Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication (UNW DPAC). URL [Accessed: 15.06.2011].

This reader provides basic references for easy reading and some of the latest and most relevant United Nations publications on the human right to water and sanitation.


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UNW DPAC (n.y.): The Human Right to Water and Sanitation Milestones. Zaragoza: UN Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication (UNW DPAC). URL [Accessed: 15.06.2011].

This document presents the UN historical background and evolution of recognition of the human right to water and sanitation.


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UNW DPAC (n.y.): Glossary on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Zaragoza: UN Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication (UNW DPAC). URL [Accessed: 15.06.2011].

This document presents a short glossary on the human right to water and sanitation which defines frequently used terms.


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UNW DPAC; WSSCC (n.y.): The Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Media Brief. Zaragoza: UN Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication (UNW-DPAC) and Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). URL [Accessed: 15.06.2011].

This Media Brief presents the current situation and shows some examples illustrating how the human right to water and sanitation is being implemented in practice.


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HAMMOND, A.; KRAMER, W.; KATZ, R. ; TRAN, J.; WALKER, C.; WRI (Editor) (2007): The Next 4 Billion. Market Size and Business Strategy at the Base of the Pyramid. Washington DC: World Resources Institute (WRI). URL [Accessed: 22.06.2011].

Four billion low-income people, a majority of the world’s population, constitute the base of the economic pyramid. New empirical measures of their behavior as consumers and their aggregate purchasing power suggest significant opportunities for market-based approaches to better meet their needs, increase their productivity and incomes, and empower their entry into the formal economy.


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UN (Editor) (2011): (The) Millennium Development Goals Report 2011. New York: United Nations (UN). URL [Accessed: 17.10.2011].

This document annually informs about the progresses concerning the Millennium Development Goals (MDG's) of the United Nations.

See document in SPANISH


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UN WATER (Editor) (n.y.): Sanitation for All: Making the Right a Reality. (= Factsheet, 1). United Nations Water (UN WATER). URL [Accessed: 17.10.2011].

This short factsheet is a good overview on the right to water and sanitation, including latest achievements as well as ideas for taking action.


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ALBUQUERQUE, C. (2013): Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque. (=Report submitted to the General Assembly’s Human Rights Council, 24th session, July 11, 2013). Geneva: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). URL [Accessed: 07.10.2013].

Focusing on sustainability in the realization the human rights to water and sanitation, the report examines how the rights to water and sanitation can and must be met for present and future generations. Using the human rights framework, the report analyses states’ common approaches to water and sanitation, particularly in adopting measures both during times of normalcy and during economic and financial crises, and shows how those approaches often fail to incorporate sustainability.


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BRADLEY, D.J.; BARTRAM, J.K. (2013): Domestic Water and Sanitation as Water Security. Monitoring, Concepts and Strategy. In: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 371. London: Royal Society Publishing. URL [Accessed: 01.11.2013].

As distinct from many other domains to which the concept of water security is applied, domestic or personal water security requires a perspective that incorporates the reciprocal notions of provision and risk, as the current status of domestic water and sanitation security is dominated by deficiency. This paper reviews the interaction of science and technology with policies, practice and monitoring, and explores how far domestic water can helpfully fit into the proposed concept of water security, how that is best defined, and how far the human right to water affects the situation.


Case Studies Library

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CONSTITUTIONAL COURT OF SOUTH AFRICA (Editor) (2009): Lindiwe Mazibuko and Others v City of Johannesburg and Others: Judgment of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, decided on 8th October 2009 . (= Case CCT 39/09, 2009 ZACC 28)). CONSTITUTIONAL COURT OF SOUTH AFRICA .

This leading case illustrates the practical application of the right to water by the South African administration under difficult conditions and its enforcement by the South African judiciary.


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GOWLLAND-GUALTIERI, A. (2007): South Africa’s water law and policy framework, Implications for the right to water. International Environmental Law Research Centre (IELRC).

The paper examines the right of access to water as it is consecrated in the South African constitution. It then focuses on the implementation of the constitutional right and highlights major challenges to the realization of the right to water with regard to the South African water framework.


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MURALIDHAR, S. (2006): The right to water, An overview of the Indian legal regime. In: Riedel, E. (Editor); Rothen, P. (Editor) (2006): The Human Right to Water. , 65-81.

The paper gives a broad overview of the Indian laws related to water and the right to water in India. It discusses some of the decisions of the courts in cases involving


Awareness Raising Material Library

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COHRE (Editor); WATERAID SDC (Editor); UN-HABITAT (Editor) (2008): Sanitation: A human Rights Imperative. Geneva: Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE).

A document defining sanitation in human rights terms, describing the value of treating sanitation as a human rights issue and outlining priority actions for governments, international organisations and civil society.


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WORLD WATER COUNCIL (Editor) (2006): The Right to Water: From Concept to Implementation. WORLD WATER COUNCIL . URL [Accessed: 22.04.2012].

The document defines the right to water, outlines the obligations of national governments and gives recommendations on actions and policy strategies for the successful implementation of the right to water.


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UNW DPAC (n.y.): The Human Right to Water Eight Facts. Zaragoza: UN Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication (UNW DPAC). URL [Accessed: 15.06.2011].

Eight Short Facts on the human right to water and sanitation.


Important Weblinks

http://www.righttowater.info [Accessed: 12.05.2010]

This website is a host of information on the right to water and sanitation and contains information on legal norms and key documents related to the topic.

http://www.righttowater.ca/ [Accessed: 15.06.2010]

A website launched by the Council of Canadian’s Blue Planet Project “to help concerned citizens learn more about the international struggle to secure the human right to water”. It provides useful information on current issues related to the right to water from an NGO perspective.

www.un.org [Accessed: 15.06.2011]

This website contains a lot of information about the human right to water and sanitation.

www.unwaterlibrary.org/right_to_water [Accessed: 15.01.2013]

This virtual library provides access to recent water and sanitation related publications produced by the United Nations system. This chapter shows the results on the theme "Human right to water and sanitation".

http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/en/ [Accessed: 01.06.2010]

This website is a description of the WHO’s work on water, sanitation and hygiene as well as an interesting collection of documents on the issues.