Lack of access to safe drinking water is a situation that plagues approximately 783 million people, many of them being among the world’s poorest. Additionally, 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation. The use of contaminated water causes many serious diseases, which results in the death of millions of people every year. The lack of adequate quantities of safe water prevents people from obtaining the basic essentials for living, such as proper hygiene, adequate food, and improved sanitation.
Former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right. Contaminated water jeopardizes both the physical and social health of all people. It is an affront to human dignity.”
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon continues, "The children who have no clean water to drink, the women who fear for their safety, the young people who have no chance to receive a decent education have a right to better, and we have a responsibility to do better. All people have the right to safe drinking water, sanitation, shelter, and basic services."
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated, “The right to water clearly falls within the category of guarantees essential for securing an adequate standard of living, particularly since it is one of the most fundamental conditions for survival.” In November 2002, the Committee released General Comment No. 15, which recognizes water as a basic human right. This was followed by Resolution 64/292 in July of 2010, which stated that everyone has the right to clean water and sanitation. It also called all countries and organizations to contribute to the realization of that goal through financial support.
In the words of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Director-General of the World Health Organization, and Sergio Vieira de Mello, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “The right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water, and it must be enjoyed without discrimination and equally by women and men.”
What does this mean for world governments?
International standards protect human rights, but individual governments are the ones who fashion relationships with each of its citizens. By recognizing water as a basic human right, the UN is requiring that each government progressively provide all its citizens with safe, sufficient, accessible, and affordable water, as well as safe sanitation. Governments must respect, protect, and fulfill an individual’s right to water.
What this means is that governments must not interfere with an individual’s enjoyment of the right to water, and must prevent other parties (e.g. corporations, individuals, communities, and civil society) from doing so. Governments must also establish the mechanisms (e.g. legislation) by which individuals gain full access to the right to water.
An important aspect of the declaration is that the right to water applies to everyone without discrimination. An individual’s right to water must also not be interfered with due to one’s inability to pay, thereby preventing the poor from being excluded. Governments must ensure that affordable water is supplied to all.
How will this affect individuals?
The UN declaration provides for an individual’s right to safe water, but they will only benefit if a government works to make it happen. People must also be educated about their rights so they can use the information to obtain those rights. The UN will check on the progress of governments to ensure that individuals are steadily gaining the right to water, and will make governments accountable if progress is not being made.
Since people are legally entitled to safe water, it ceases to be a commodity. This should speed up the process of establishing improved services. All groups and individuals, regardless of who they are, will be able to be involved in the process. Groups who had previously been prevented from obtaining proper access to water, will be empowered to stand up for their rights.
Access to safe water for all people is a crucial goal that needs to be achieved. Eibe Riedel, from the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concludes by saying, “People all over the world have a human right to water as the most fundamental prerequisite for living a life in dignity. Without it, the realization of other human rights is impossible. Since water resources are limited and unevenly distributed, a clear responsibility rests on all States and other public or private non-state actors to secure access to safe, secure, affordable, and acceptable drinking and fresh water resources for all.”
Rick de Vries is the Director of Development for the Fresh Outlook Foundation. He has a background in research and environmental sciences, and has many years of experience writing and editing for environmentally related media.