UN declares water and sanitation a human right

28 July 2010

In an historic victory for social movements, the UN declared water and sanitation a human right despite opposition from countries like the US, UK and Canada.

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 General Assembly declared today, voicing deep concern that almost 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water.

The resolution put forward by the Plurinational State of Bolivia calls on "states and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity building and technology transfer, through international assistance and co-operation, in particular to developing countries, in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all."

The decision also welcomes a decision by the the UN Human Rights Council that the UN Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations should present an annual report to the General Assembly on progress towards realising the human right and meeting targets set in the Millennium Development Goals.

The Assembly resolution received 122 votes in favour and zero votes against. 41 mainly developed countries including the US, UK, Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Canada abstained. France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Spain however voted in favour of the resolution.

The text of the resolution expresses deep concern that an estimated 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and a total of more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. Studies also indicate about 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year and 443 million school days are lost because of water- and sanitation-related diseases.

Presenting the resolution, Ambassador Pablo Solon of Bolivia noted that water had up to now never been fully recognised as a human right. "The Summit on the Millennium Development Goals is approaching, and it is necessary to give a clear signal to the world that drinking-water and sanitation are a human right, and that we will do everything possible to reach this goal, which we have only 5 more years to achieve."

The resolution was a result of extensive campaigning and lobbying work by many civil society organisations, in particular the Council of Canadians. There were fears up to the last minute that countries opposed to the resolution would block it or undermine it. However in the end, those opposed abstained, only expressing their concern that the resolution was not consulted properly or couched in the right language.

Celebrating the successful approval of the resolution, Anil Naidoo, of Council of Canadian's Blue Planet Project said: “This resolution has the overwhelming support of a strong majority of countries, despite a handful of powerful opponents. It must now be followed-up with a renewed push for water justice. We are calling for actions on the ground in communities around the world to ensure that the rights to water and sanitation are implemented.

Satoko Kishimoto, joint coordinator of TNI and Corporate European Observatory's Water Justice Project celebrated the accord but also said the bigger battle would be ensuring that water remains a public and common good:

"The resolution is a very important new tool for forcing governments to improve water delivery, via funding for expanding clean water and sanitation as well as progressive reforms of public water management.

"However there is also a very important battle ahead to ensure that governments not only commit to the right to water but also recognise that improved publicly managed water systems is the only realistic option for implementing this right.

"In the wake of the UN resolution, private water lobbies like AquaFed have been celebrating its approval, claiming that governments should use their services. Yet in countless cases worldwide, we have seen that private water firms have proven ill-equipped to secure access to water for the poorest. Only a properly funded and improved publicly managed water system can turn the hope of this declaration into reality for the millions of people without clean water or sanitation."