Water is essential to people’s health and livelihoods, as well as the sustainable alleviation of poverty. For conflict-affected countries, in particular, safe access to water and sanitation plays a critical role in meeting basic human needs, upholding human rights and supporting peaceful and prosperous livelihoods at all levels.

The Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation has stressed that ‘International human rights law obliges States to work towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation, guided by human rights principles and their defined standards, while prioritising those most in need.’ The legal content of the human right to water and sanitation encompasses the following dimensions:

  • Availability – that States must provide sufficient and continuous water for personal and domestic use, and a sufficient number of sanitation facilities;
  • Accessibility – that water and sanitation services must be accessible to everyone within, or in the immediate vicinity, of household, health and educational institution, public institutions and workplaces;
  • Acceptability – that sanitation facilities, in particular, have to be culturally acceptable, and constructed in a way that ensures privacy and dignity;
  • Affordability – that the price of sanitation and water services must be affordable for all without compromising the ability to pay for other essential necessities guaranteed by human rights such as food, housing and health care.

Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)  recognises the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living. The Committee On Economic, Social And Cultural Rights, the treaty body in charge of monitoring State compliance with the ICESCR, has pointed out that although the right to water is not explicitly recognised on the Covenant, the list is not exhaustive and the right to water is essential to an adequate standard of living. Accordingly, UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292 explicitly recognised the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes the need ‘to combat disease and malnutrition, including within the framework of primary health care, through, inter alia, the application of readily available technology and through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking-water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution’. At a regional level, some regional treaties explicitly recognize the right to safe drinking water and sanitation such as the Arab Charter on Human Rights and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

The report ‘On the Right Track’ clearly exposes the importance of the right to clean water and sanitation:

‘For the individual, access to safe water and sanitation is fundamental for leading a dignified life, and improves health, access to education and work opportunities. On a societal level, a population that has access to safe water and sanitation services will be healthier, more available to work and can contribute to development and economic growth, while living in a cleaner environment.’

Moreover, the 2014 Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation developed a handbook where it is explored, firstly in the identification of the key barriers, challenges and opportunities that stakeholders encounter in realizing the human rights to water and sanitation, and then further in the testing and verification of the checklists and recommendations featured in the handbook.

The right to water and the right to a healthy environment

 The right to safe and clean drinking water is closely linked to the right to a clean, safe, healthy, and sustainable environment, as water is a natural resource, the quality and quantity of which depends entirely on the environment. The Framework Principles On Human Rights And The Environment recognises that human rights are interconnected, and as such, ‘a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to an adequate standard of living, to adequate food, to safe drinking water and sanitation, to housing, to participation in cultural life and to development, as well as the right to a healthy environment itself.’

Major threats to the environment, such as accelerating urbanization, climate change, increasing pollution and depletion of water resources, also pose major challenges to the adequate fulfilment of the right to safe drinking water. As explained by the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, ‘Climate change is affecting precipitation patterns across the world, with some dry areas receiving less precipitation and wet areas receiving more frequent and intense precipitation’, affecting the core components of the right to water.

The Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation has also explored the impacts that megaprojects such as infrastructure projects, extractive industries, energy production projects, water supply systems and transport projects to mega-events, inter alia, can have on the fulfilment of the right to water. According to his report, ‘the extensive usage of land required for the implementation and the massive exploitation of water sources may have dire consequences for the availability and quality of water and, in general, for the way the population accesses water and sanitation services.’

Given that water is a vital resource for the fulfilment of the right to life, and the right to safe drinking water and sanitation is a recognised human right, the defence of the environment and the protection of natural resources such as water, should be one of the main priorities of governments and societies.