06.12.2011 - Natural Sciences Sector

The Right to Water

© Dale Lighfoot/Oklahoma State University Young Iraqi girl filling a can with water piped from a karez opening

In 2001, and taking part in the international efforts to address the major human and environmental crises facing our world, UNESCO stated that ‘non-discriminatory access to water and sanitation is regarded […] as a pre-requisite for the realisation of several other human rights, such as the rights to life, dignity, health, food, and an adequate standard of living and education.’ (1) The organization has played a pioneering role in the intellectual discussions that preceded the international recognition of the human right to clean drinking water and sanitation; and contributed to exploring the legal and technical framework leading its adoption.

This right is indeed referenced—implicitly and explicitly—in a number of earlier international and regional treaties and declaration including the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, the official recognition by the UN General Assembly of the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights in July 2010 (A/RES/64/92) remains a most significant milestone in defining international obligations towards the fulfilment of this right. The non-binding Resolution calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, through international assistance and cooperation, in particular to developing countries, in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all. On 30 September of the same year, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution A/HRC/RES/15/9 in which it affirms that the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and thus reaffirming its moral foundation.

Yet, and despite of the wide recognition of this human right, an estimated 884 million people continue to lack access to safe drinking water. More than 2.6 billion people live without proper sanitation(2) and some 1.5 million children below five die each year from sicknesses caused by water-borne diseases(3). These numbers continue to seriously challenge the ability of some countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. UNESCO, through its water programmes, provides its Member States with critical elements of the scientific backbone upon which they can rely to address the societal and technical challenges of this situation and therefore, achieve progress in reaching the MDGs targets related to water. UNESCO thus constantly underlines the importance of the right to water and explicitly recognizes it. For example, in 2008, UNESCO’s former Director- General Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, reasserted the organization’s position of 2001 when he stressed that freshwater shortages and inequitable access to water pose “the greatest ecological and human rights threats of our time.”

Not only are water resources crucial to life itself, but they are closely linked to other global issues including energy, climate change, and the international economy. The potential impacts of climate change on the availability of fresh water and on water quality are considerable. Droughts deteriorate water quality since less water is available for the dilution of wastewater; while more intense rainfall is expected to lead to a deterioration of water quality as it enhances the transport of pathogens and other dissolved pollutants (such as pesticides) to surface water and groundwater. The degradation of surface and groundwater quality has a direct impact on ecosystems and human health. This crisis situation has been recognized as a key obstacle to improving human well-being, fostering education and eradicating poverty.

Global changes are likely to exacerbate water-related issues in already stressed arid and semi-arid regions. UNESCO is assisting member states to strengthen the global capacity to manage the water resources of such areas and develop integrated management strategies at local, regional, and national levels. Such strategies will pave the way for the actual implementation of the right to water and should be grounded in the recognition that we are trustees of water resources that must be conserved for future generations. Moreover, it is critical that local communities have real, meaningful involvement in management decisions and that the diverse socio-cultural dimensions of people’s engagement with water, such as identity, heritage, and sense of belonging be recognized.

UNESCO’s water programmes each focus on specific aspects, such as managing groundwater, shared aquifers, sedimentation, floods, monitoring, water law; to name a few, these are the elements of integrated water resource management and aim to improve Member States’ capacity to adapt to global change and manage water resources to provide safe drinking water and sanitation for all.

Through its Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential (PC-CP) programme, the UN-World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) hosted by UNESCO, and the UNESCO Institute for Water Education (UNESCO-IHE), the organization has organized expert workshops and training colloquia to further explore the human right to safe and clean water and sanitation from conceptual, legal and applied points of view. The outcomes of these activities have been published and publicized (please see links below). 

According to the UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010, “The world is on track to meet the drinking water target, though much remains to be done in some regions. If current trends continue, the world will meet or even exceed the MDG drinking water target by 2015. By that time, an estimated 86 per cent of the population in developing regions will have gained access to improved sources of drinking water.” However, the safety of water supplies remains a challenge and urgently needs to be addressed.

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova recently stated that “Several countries share 276 drainage basins and almost as many aquifers throughout the world. All of these shared resources are natural crossroads of global civilization. If we fail to make water an instrument of peace, it might be tomorrow a major source of conflict. As we are celebrating 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry, UNESCO has undertaken to disseminate to as many people as possible, the possibilities offered by science to make the right to water and sanitation, recognized in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, a reality for all. In reiterating our commitment today, I call on the international community to join our efforts.”

(1) UNESCO contribution to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) study on the scope and content of human rights obligations related to equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation, 2001.
(2) The right to water and water rights in a changing world (2011)
(3) According to UNICEF




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