Water - a Human Right

The lack of access to drinking water and sanitation is one of the main challenges of our time. For instance, in Sub-Saharan Africa 40% of the population have no drinking water and 70% have no toilet, facts of which the public is largely unaware. The resulting diseases kill more children than malaria, measles and AIDS put together. Each year diarrhoeal diseases result in the loss of over 400 million school days, millions of children and adolescents thus lose out on education and the chance to escape poverty.

Whilst international law in theory recognizes the human right to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation, this right is not universally implemented, because of concerns that it will require substantial financial commitment. It is true that the human right to clean drinking water and sanitation obliges states to create appropriate framework conditions and rules and to invest or create investment
incentives, in order to bring about a gradual improvement in the supply situation. Clearly this cannot be done for nothing, but the financial outlay brings a huge economic benefit: one dollar invested in water/sanitation contrasts with eight dollars of damage to the economy if nothing is done.

The first resolution on the right to water and sanitation (Resolution 7/22) was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2008, as a result of a joint initiative by Germany and Spain. At the same time the resolution established the mandate for an Independent Expert on this human right. The holder of this post is Catarina de Albuquerque from Portugal. Her task is to contribute to the clarification of the legal obligations related to this issue and to identify best practices.

Independent Expert on the right to water 

Germany supports the work of the Independent Expert in substance, financially and by supporting relevant resolutions. The most recent resolution in the UN Human Rights Council was sponsored by Germany in September 2011 and received support from 66 states from all regions. The resolution calls for comprehensive plans and strategies meeting all human rights standards in order to ensure the full implementation of the right to water and sanitation.

In addition to measures under international law, however, this subject needs even greater public attention. There are three aspects here: first of all, the political will of the decision-makers needs to be aroused and strengthened, because water and sanitation are basic prerequisites for a dignified life. Moreover, supplying these needs is of economic benefit. Growth and prosperity can emerge when basic human needs are met. Existing misunderstandings need to be cleared up. For instance, guaranteeing the human right to water and sanitation is an
individual right and creates no claims between states. Whilst the right to water and sanitation is primarily a matter for governments, there is no reason why the supply should not be privatized and appropriate charges levied. Last but not least, the taboo surrounding the discussion of sanitation must be removed. Education about necessary hygiene measures is one of the most efficient ways to
prevent disease.

In addition to its multilateral engagement, the Federal Foreign Office and its missions abroad use meetings at bilateral level to heighten local decision-makers’ awareness of the issue. The Federal Foreign Office also actively supports the WASH United information campaign which, with the help of well-known sportspeople, entertainers and politicians, draws attention to the right to clean drinking water and sanitation and aims to change attitudes.