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UN Resolution Recognizes Water as a Right


Last week, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution declaring access to clean water and sanitation a fundamental right.

Spearheaded by Bolivia, the resolution passed with 122 countries in favor, zero against and 41 abstentions. It states that “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation [is] a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” The resolution also urges states and international organizations to support the effort to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.

More than 1.2 billion people have to defecate in the open. The biggest single cause of child deaths is diarrhoea or disesases related to it. Nearly one billion people have no access to piped drinking water or safe taps or wells, the Economist reported in May in a special report on water.

Furthermore, since 2000, the area under irrigation has doubled and the amount of water drawn for farming has tripled. The proportion of people living in countries chronically short of water, which was eight percent (500 million people) at the turn of the 21st century, is set to rise to 45 percent (four billion people) by 2050. One billion people go to bed hungry each night, partly for lack of water to grow food.

These disquieting statistics bring attention to Millennium Development Goal 7 which has committed the international community to halving the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. Escalated efforts need to be made if this target is to be reached; it will be reviewed in the upcoming MDG Summit in New York in September.

At the same time, water is being commoditized, priced and sold, and the right to water, while recognized both in many traditions and in international law, has been weak in argument and in political clout. The new resolution strengthens that position.

Considering how indelible water is to our survival, it is sometimes difficult to believe that there has been an arduous struggle within the international human rights community to have water recognized as an explicit human right.

The right to water is enshrined in Article 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, recognizing the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living and the right to health. In 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued General Comment 15 on the right to water, in which the Committee offers its interpretation of the potential scope and content of the right, which marked another major milestone in the development of the right to water.

And in 2008, the UN Human Rights Council appointed Catarina de Albuquerque as an independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. De Albuquerque presented a report to the Human Rights Council in 2009 which focused mainly on human rights obligations with regard to sanitation and the inextricable links between sanitation and human rights.

Although the passing of last week’s UN resolution is a promising victory, several abstentions by key member states demonstrate critical challenges in ensuring that this right be fully recognized internationally. Some of the most notable abstentions came from wealthy countries such as Austria, Canada, Denmark, Israel, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Furthermore, many water-stressed countries and countries where a significant proportion of the population lacks adequate access to clean water and sanitation were either absent or abstained.

This resolution is a historic step that was earnestly awaited by those involved in the battle for the acknowledgement of this intrinsic and vital right. CESR affirms the need for states to be held to account for their obligations to economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to water. Along with other NGOs, for example, CESR contributed to the production of a 2003 guide by the World Health Organization and the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights on “The Right to Water.” This guide outlines the scope and content of the legal framework for the right to water, as well as highlighting key issues in practice.