One year ago today, the United Nations General Assembly adopted an historic resolution recognizing the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. Two months later, the Human Rights Council adopted a second resolution affirming that drinking water and sanitation are human rights, and setting out the new obligations and responsibilities all governments now carry to develop appropriate tools and mechanisms to progressively achieve the full realization of these rights. Together the two resolutions represent an extraordinary breakthrough in the international struggle for the right to safe clean drinking water and sanitation and a crucial milestone in the fight for water justice.
The struggle to achieve this milestone was a long one and blocked for years by some powerful corporations and governments who prefer to view water as a private commodity to be put on the open market for sale. Indeed, forty-one countries, including the U.K., Australia, Japan, Canada and the U.S., abstained in the General Assembly vote. (However, in a welcome and surprise move, the U.S. voted in favour of the Human Rights Council’s resolution.) Some of these governments insist that they are still under no new obligations in this area, as they claim the General Assembly vote was not binding. This is incorrect. Because the Human Rights Council resolution is an interpretation of two exiting international treaties, it clarifies that the resolution adopted by the General Assembly is legally binding in international law. Said an official UN press release, “The right to water and sanitation is a human right, equal to all other human rights, which implies that it is justiciable and enforceable.”
This means that whether or not they voted for the right to water and sanitation, every member state of the United Nations is now required to prepare a Plan of Action for the Realization of the Right to Water and Sanitation and to report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on its performance in this area. This plan of action must meet three obligations: the Obligation to Respect, whereby the state must refrain from any action or policy that interferes with these rights, such as removing water and wastewater services because of an inability to pay as has happened in inner city Detroit and Boston; the Obligation to Protect, whereby the state is obliged to prevent third parties from interfering with these rights, such as protecting local communities from industrial pollution and inequitable extraction of water; and the Obligation to Fulfil, whereby the state is required to adopt any additional measures directed toward the realization of these rights, such as providing water and sanitation services to communities currently without them. In the U.S., this would include the 13 percent of Native American households without access to clean water and sanitation.
Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is the number one killer of children in our world. A new report on diarrhea by the World Health Organization says that in the global South, a child dies every three and a half seconds of water-borne diseases. In every case, if their parents could pay for clean water, these children would not be dying. While the resolutions recognizing the human right to water and sanitation will not immediately resolve this travesty, they do set the stage for a plan of action to address it. All countries now have the obligation to ensure, in a progressive manner and within available resources, that all of their people have access to water and sanitation services and special attention is to be paid to the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.
And while not specifically prohibiting private water delivery, the resolutions make it clear that the state retains the responsibility and authority to provide these services and can step in to prevent cut-offs to the poor or the charging of exorbitant water rates by for-profit providers. Clearly, in recognizing the human right to water and sanitation, the United Nations has endorsed the notion that water is a public trust best delivered on a not-for-profit basis.
The first anniversary of this historic General Assembly resolution presents an incredible opportunity for groups and communities around the world suffering from water shortages, unsafe drinking water and poor or non-existent sanitation services. It is not often that a new right is recognized at the United Nations, especially around an issue as increasingly political and urgent as the global water crisis. The right to water and sanitation are living documents waiting to be used for transformational change around the world.