Applying a HRBA to Water:A Case Study


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edit  ·  Toolkit Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to Water Governance
UNDP Regional HRBA to Water Programme for Europe & CIS

Detailed documentation: Background | Regional aspects | Regional Programme | Methodology
PHASE 1: Checklist (Bosnia and Herzegovina | Georgia | Moldova | Tajikistan | Turkey | Ukraine)
PHASE 2: Country Sector Assessments and Proposed Projects (Bosnia and Herzegovina | Tajikistan | Kosovo | Serbia) | Bibliography

Legal Framework: The Rights to Water and Sanitation in International Law | Regional Law | National Law
WaterWiki-resources:Rights to Water and Sanitation: A Handbook for Activists | UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Water and Sanitation | UN Recognises Access to Clean Water as a Basic Human Right | Human Rights-Based Approach | Applying a HRBA to Water:A Case Study | Water-related Legislation and Conventions | The Right to Water - WHO Publication | A UN Convention on the Right to Water - An Idea Whose Time Has Come | International Conference on the Right to Water and Sanitation in Theory and Practice | Q&A: The Right to Water | General Comment 15 (2002) | Q&A: Water Governance | Water and Health | Equitable Access to Water and Human Rights | European Union Water Framework Directive | Essay: What exactly is “The Right to Water”? | Protocol on Water and Health | Protocol on Water and Health/Q&A | Lessons Learned From Rights-Based Approaches in the Asia-Pacific Region | Human Rights-Based Approach Strategies adopted by UNICEF Laos | Utility Privatisation through the Lens of Human Rights | The Right to Water - From Concept to Implementation | The Human Right to Water:Translating Theory into Practice | Report of the Seminar on Human Rights and MDGs, May 2009
External resources: HRBA and Water Governance Fast Facts - UNDP | Applying a HRBA to Developing Cooperation and Programming (UNDP, 2006) | COHRE Manual on the Right to Water and Sanitation | Protocol on Water and Health - Full Document) | COHRE Monitoring Implementation of the Right to Water: A Framework for Developing Indicators | Sub-commission guidelines for the realisation of the right to drinking water and sanitation (2005) | UNFPA - A HRBA to Programming, Practical Implementation Manual and Training Materials (2010) | Operational Guidelines for Implementing a Rights-Based Approach in Water and Sanitation Programming (CoHRE,2008) | COHRE Monitoring Implementation of the Right to Water: A Framework for Developing Indicators | FAQs on a HRBA to Development Cooperation | The Human Rights-Based Approach to Development - The Right to Water | UN Independent Expert Report on the issue of human rights obligations related to water and sanitation 2009 | UN Independent Expert Report on MDGs and right to water and sanitation 2010
Websites: The Rights to Water and Sanitation Information Portal | UN Independent Expert on Right to Water and Sanitation Webpage

This article is based on a case study written for the IUCN's RBA Portal by Katy Norman. It focuses on the practical aspects of implementing a HRBA to development, from experiences implementing “A Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to Improve Water Governance in Europe and CIS” in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Tajikistan.


Background and description of the case study

This case study focuses on practical aspects of the use of a rights-based approach (RBA) in the implementation of UNDP’s regional programme entitled, “A Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to Improve Water Governance in Europe and CIS”. Geographically, the focus is on Bosnia and Herzegovina and Tajikistan, two of the pilot countries since the programme gained full momentum in 2009. The overall aim of the programme is to identify opportunities in the Europe & CIS region for project development in the cross-cutting field of human rights and water governance, with the ultimate goal to bridge the gap between theory and practice with regards to the internationally recognised ‘right to water’.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (1966) is the principal foundation of the right to water, ratified by 160 states as of February 2010[1]. The subsequent adoption of General Comment No. 15: The Right to Water in 2002 by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), provided the key catalyst for real action. It created an enabling platform on which to adopt a RBA to water. A year later in 2003, various UN agencies met to develop a UN “Common Understanding” of the HRBA, helping to achieve conceptual clarity on this new, innovative approach within both the UN and wider development community. This “Common Understanding” provides a comprehensive methodology on which UNDP’s HRBA water governance programme is based.

Concretely, the UNDP´s HRBA programme aims to improve people’s access to safe potable water and sanitation, in order to assist in the effort to achieve the right to water for all: that is reliable access to safe potable water at an affordable price for every individual regardless of their age, sex, race, ethnicity or religion etc. In this sense it aims for more than the Millennium Development Goal 7 target, to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation [2]. 100% water and sanitation service delivery is the target. The [A Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to Improve Water Governance in Europe & CIS|UNDP programme]] contributes to this by (i) identifying needs and innovative opportunities for programming in the cross-cutting field of Human Rights & Water Governance, and (ii) supporting countries in Europe & CIS to develop and implement new projects according to the terms of the programme.

The application of a RBA to water has been underway since May 2009 in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Tajikistan. In that time, desk assessments and in-depth scoping missions have been undertaken to assess the gaps, capacities and enabling environment to implement a RBA, and the most suitable project option for implementation has been decided on, following agreement from all stakeholders. Stakeholders include national, regional and local government including environment/water/human rights related ministries; public water companies; private water service providers; NGOs (national/international); independent monitoring bodies, including Ombudspersons; individuals and communities, and public health practitioners (given the direct link between water quality and water related diseases). Rights-holders comprise every individual, since the right to water is an entitlement held by all people. Duty-bearers include water companies who have a mandate to provide water service delivery, and Government at all levels, who have an obligation to progressively realise the right to water of its citizens. This imposes an obligation on states to “move as expeditiously and effectively as possible towards [a particular] goal” [3], such as by adopting a national strategy or action plan to expand access to water for all, with concrete targets, policies and timelines. A RBA characteristically focuses on the most vulnerable and marginalised groups of a society, and so the rights-holders whose right to water is furthest from being met are UNDP’s target groups in both countries. This includes, rural inhabitants, 125,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), Roma, minority returnees, schoolchildren and disabled persons in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and primarily individuals in rural communities, schools and medical institutions in Tajikistan.

Context: Situation Analysis

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) is a country of approximately 4 million inhabitants that is strategising to join the European Union and is undergoing a process of consolidation following the civil war (1992-1995). The institutional structure of the water sector is complex with two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FB&H) and the Republic of Srpska (RS), 10 Cantons within FB&H, and municipalities. As a result, responsibilities for water management and policies exist at numerous government levels (entity, canton and municipality), which poses operational and planning constraints. War damage coupled with improper maintenance of the water supply systems that were largely constructed under the former Yugoslavian government, has resulted in large network leakages in B&H today. Public water utilities cover only 54% [4] of the total population (56% coverage in FB&H and 48% in RS[5] ); well below the EU 90% average. Insufficient revenue collection for reinvestment in the water sector is a grave problem. There is also a lack of local level capacity and resources to develop and deliver effective services in municipalities. Moreover, solving water and sanitation problems are typically deemed secondary to all other infrastructure problems (e.g. buildings, electricity supply etc). In addition, water quality problems exist in the centre and south of the country where most drinking water is abstracted from karst springs. Formed in very fractured and porous limestone, karst aquifers provide an extremely rich source of groundwater, but one that is very vulnerable to pollution as groundwater velocity and turbidity is high. In some karst environments, sink holes and surface streams are often used for disposal of wastewaters, leading to pollution of the whole hydrological system and endangering drinking water sources. The prevention of pollution of these vulnerable karst zones is the most important factor for the safe long-term water supply to many municipalities in B&H.

The right to water of vulnerable and marginalised groups in rural areas is furthest from being realised. Rural areas are generally not connected to a centralised water supply system, but depend on private, unprotected wells and springs. The capacity of these unimproved water sources is being overwhelmed by the large returnee population, including approximately 125,000[6] IDPs and 60,000 Roma diffuse throughout the country who do not have reliable access to sufficient, affordable, potable water. Without an official place of residence with a building licence, access to clean, safe water cannot be granted. Registered cases and claims submitted to the Ombudsman regarding the water sector highlight the two biggest problems in terms of the right to water are a lack of knowledge and public awareness regarding the right. Moreover, justice in access to information is infrequently met; water-relevant information is hard to obtain, even though B&H has acceded to the Aarhus Convention (1998).

Civil society human rights structures are weak. Environmental NGOs are generally not active in the cross-cutting areas of water governance and human rights. Most NGOs in B&H have been set up to deal with the housing crisis and returnees following the civil war, but very few explicitly deal with human rights issues. Those that do are concerned with first generation human rights (predominantly political and civil), not third generation social and economic rights, including rights to natural resources. Nevertheless, NGOs and national stakeholders do welcome the RBA as a new and innovative method for improving water governance and access rates in B&H.

The legislative framework for implementing a right to water is sufficient on paper in B&H. The state has ratified many international conventions and regional instruments that confer on them various international water and human rights obligations, including the ICESCR (1966), ratified in 1992. The Constitution also includes most of the principles of these human rights conventions and guarantees that they supersede national legislation. Yet, challenges remain in improving the implementation of national and international legislation and the execution of rulings, as the institutional and administrative bodies needed to ensure the legislation is adequately enforced are embedded in a complex politico-administrative system lacking harmonization and clearly defined responsibilities.


Tajikistan is one of the poorest of the Central Asian countries, with a rapidly growing population of over 7 million. More than 5million people live in the rural areas characterized by a fragile and vulnerable environment. The country is one of the most water wealthy states in the world with 13,000m3 of water available per capita[7], but only 59% of the population have access to drinking water. An estimated 87% of urban residents receive water from the central network, compared to only 20% in rural areas. However, these connectivity figures mask the fact that due to serious leakages in the water supply network (50-60%), untreated water often flows into the water pipes. Consequently, as much as 40% of water consumed is not potable and 41% of the population uses water from public utilities that is of poor quality[8].

During the Soviet era, most rural villages had functioning piped water supply systems operated by their collective farm operators. But with the break-up of the Soviet Union and these farms, and the lack of maintenance and damage sustained throughout the country’s long civil war (1992-1997), very few rural water supply systems are functioning today. As these systems have become increasingly abandoned, rural communities are forced to draw its water from alternative sources, including springs, wells, irrigation ditches, canals, and rainwater collection, which do not meet established public health and hygiene requirements, and contribute to the spread of infectious diseases[9]. Overwhelmingly, it is women and children, tasked with carrying water from source to household in rural areas, whose right to water are furthest from being realised. Children are unarguably the most vulnerable. They are the most frequent victims of gastric and intestinal infections caused by contaminated water, as more than 50% of schools in Tajikistan do not have access to piped, safe drinking water[10]. The majority of medical institutions also lack access to proper sanitation and safe water. It is therefore no surprise that 45-50% of intestinal infections in Tajikistan are waterborne (61% in villages and 39% in cities) and the number of water-related diseases and associated morbidity rates are ever-increasing. Duty-bearers are aware of the critical situation, but institutional capacities are too weak to address the problem without the help of international organisations.

Public grassroots organisations are important in Tajikistan’s water sector, permitting citizens to voice their problems and concerns, but most are operating with scarce and limited resources. Yet The Consumers Union of Tajikistan is the only organisation directly working to protect consumer rights, and their activities are at present restricted to urban areas. They argue that it is difficult to work in rural areas because there is no ownership of the water supply systems. The appointment of an Ombudsman is currently underway, which will offer an additional route via a trusted intermediary for citizens to claim their rights, and hold duty-bearers to account. However, the vast majority of the population are unaware they have a right to affordable, safe potable water. The few that are aware are typically unaware of the redress mechanisms available to them when their access is denied. There is a grave need to raise civil society awareness of when water companies are violating the law, and build their capacities to file claims and demand compensation when appropriate[11]. Yet this is challenging, as the rights-holders most affected are the poor and uneducated in rural areas who currently have very little means or courage to claim their rights. There is a need to change utility and consumer perceptions and instil a sense of joint ownership, responsibility and interest in managing the country’s abundant water resources.

The legislative framework providing for water rights and responsibilities is sufficient to an extent, but needs improving. Tajikistan has ratified the ICESCR (1966)[12], and various conventions and agreements related to transboundary waters. National legislation to address water management and access issues include the Law on Water (2000), the Tajik Water Code (2002), the country’s recently signed, and first ever, Water User Association Law (2008), and a draft national law on drinking water is under the government’s consideration. However, the Water Code does not sufficiently deal with the issues of water supply and sanitation, and the Constitution formally recognizes the ‘right to water’, but only indirectly in Article 18 which states “every person has the right to life”. Proper implementation and enforcement of legislation is vital to protect individual human rights, which is proving an additional challenge. Despite the wide-ranging challenges, presidential support provides hope. At a high-level speech in 2008, President Rahmon emphasised that the ‘right to water’ needs to be realised in Tajikistan, as vital for maintaining human dignity and as a precondition for the realisation of other human rights.

Use of a RBA during the project implementation

The relevance of using a RBA in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Tajikistan was multi-faceted. Access rates to safe drinking water are low in both countries, and for significant portions of the populations their right to water is not a reality. Additionally, previous donor funded projects had focused on physical infrastructure rehabilitation at the neglect of building community buy-in and operator capacity needed to sustain improvements, which has resulted in little tangible improvement on the ground. A new approach was clearly needed to help fulfil the right to water for every individual. A RBA was chosen given its added-value over ‘traditional’ development approaches. The emphasis on human rights was considered to provide a more innovative approach to improving water governance that had a higher chance of success. Furthermore, by addressing the discriminatory practices and unjust power relationships at the heart of development problems, a RBA should result in more sustainable impacts on the ground. It also has the potential to empower the powerless, by building the capacity of the most marginalised and vulnerable so they can actively claim their rights and hold duty-bearers to account if they fall short of their obligations. This was important as frequently the most vulnerable and poorest are left out of development interventions because it is too challenging or resource intensive to make a difference. Additionally, the high chance of improved accountability of duty-bearers was considered a further added-value of adopting a RBA.

A RBA to water was adopted using a three phase implementation strategy, which can be adapted to different contexts as necessary. Phase 1 consisted of desk reviews/assessments to analyse the baseline situation in the water sector of the target country, in terms of the main problems, capacities of rights holders and duty bearers and the enabling environment to adopt a RBA. Six pilot reviews were undertaken using a standard checklist, which helped identify the main thematic areas of the regional HRBA programme - water accessibility, water affordability, water allocation & quality - the basic elements of the human right to water according to General Comment No. 15. These desk assessments were only preliminary and could not constitute the basis for identifying and designing specific projects. Rather, they were used to inform phase 2, comprising comprehensive in-country scoping missions involving stakeholder consultations. The aim of the missions was to assess in greater depth the situation in a country’s water sector and its enabling environment to implement a RBA, as well as to identify gaps for concrete UNDP projects on the ground. Following the missions, findings from the desk reviews and scoping mission laid the basis of a Water Sector Assessment (30 pages average), and a Project Options Document outlining 2 or 3 projects that would be suitable for implementation in the target country that accord to the terms of the programme. The UNDP Country Office and stakeholders subsequently decided which project to implement, considering the country’s needs identified in the sector assessment and available human and financial resources. Partner and resource mobilisation for project execution was also part of phase 2. Phase 3 constitutes project implementation, which involves project inception, implementation, reporting, monitoring and evaluation in accordance with UNDP rules and procedures. Both countries are expected to begin this phase shortly. The standard UNDP Annual Work Plan Monitoring Tool will be applied each year to monitor the accomplishment of project outputs. Quarterly and Annual Progress reports will also be created and a Lessons Learned Log activated and regularly updated to ensure continuous learning and adaptation related to the application of a RBA.

Focusing specifically on the Situation Analysis (phases 1 and 2), the initial baseline assessment was undertaken using a standard checklist. Uniform checklists were used in order to systematize how baseline analyses were conducted in all countries under the programme. The checklists were filled using reports and information obtained via the UNDP Country Offices and internet searches, and were structured in 6 parts:

1. Status of the main human rights conventions and other relevant instruments

This involved listing the main global and regional human rights and water-related conventions impacting the target country, along with the status of ratification.

2. Assessment of country context to implement a RBA to water

This included assessing the enabling environment and main socio-political problems in the target country. The focus was, inter alia, on integration of water supply and sanitation (WSS) in the country’s development plan; the current level of achievement of the WSS target of Millennium Development Goal 7; country support for a HRBA to WSS (i.e. constitution and national laws); identifying the marginalised and vulnerable with regard to access to water and sanitation, relevant NGOs, service providers and duty-bearers; analysing the economic context of the country; identifying existing national and international WSS programmes and projects in the country, to avoid duplication; assessing the state of the water infrastructure (wastewater treatment plants, private wells, centralised water supply system); and analysing national, regional and local strategies and plans relevant to the cross-cutting themes of human rights and water governance.

3. Policy and legislation to implement a RBA to water

The purpose of this section was to evaluate the adequacy and completeness of the legislative framework in the target country for implementing a RBA to water. This involved identifying if the right to water was formally recognised in the constitution/national laws; assessing whether competent authorities and responsibilities were clearly defined; and analysing the extent to which water accessibility, affordability and quality & availability were integrated into laws and policies.

4.Institutional and administrative structures and procedures

For legislation to be effective, adequate institutional and administrative structures and systems need to be in place to ensure that legal requirements are implemented and enforced. This section of the checklist therefore analysed the institutional and administrative structures, competencies, capacities and (defined) responsibilities, in order to identify areas of need.

5. Cross-cutting issues

Cross-cutting issues of access to information and transparency, public participation and accountability (including access to justice and redress mechanisms) that underpin human rights principles were assessed in section 5.

6. Stakeholders Capacity

The final section involved examining the capacity of Government officials at national, regional and local levels; CSOs and NGOs; water service providers; industry; health practitioners and the existence of any awareness raising or education campaigns on the right to water.

The checklists were not exhaustive but included sufficient detail to help inform the week long, in-depth scoping missions in country that provided much additional relevant information, which in turn informed the subsequent Sector Assessments and Project Options Documents. Contact was made with relevant stakeholders identified from the checklists, via the UNDP Country Office, a few weeks prior to the respective country scoping mission, to inform them about UNDP’s HRBA programme, the mission aims and to schedule a good time and place for consultation. Given the cross-cutting nature of applying a RBA to water, stakeholders from both water and human rights sectors were engaged. Ministries responsible for water and human rights, Ombudspersons, water service providers and public health practitioners were met individually, but NGOs working on water/human rights issues were consulted using a roundtable as they were working towards similar goals and supported each other. Consultations were tailored towards the specific stakeholder and aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of issues touched upon in the checklists and beyond, with the ultimate goal to identify areas of most need and create suitable project options for implementation. Towards the latter stages of the mission, it was useful to present emerging draft project ideas to stakeholders to get their feedback, which ensured the project options created thereafter were justified. On completing the scoping missions, a comprehensive water sector assessment and project options document were produced for each country, and distributed to stakeholders and potential project partners for review and comment. The sector assessments highlighted the present state and future needs of the water sector in the respective country and pinpointed the main issues to be addressed. The comprehensive gap analysis formed the foundation on which the project options were created. The UNDP Country Office and stakeholders then agreed a Water Rights and Responsibilities Awareness Raising Campaign was the best project option to implement in B&H and Tajikistan.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Many lessons have been learned from this experience. The overarching lesson is that a RBA has the potential to increase the efficiency, sustainability and overall impact of development projects. A RBA brings about a change of perspective in the design and implementation of projects, but it does not require a lot more work, rather simply adapting “traditional” development approaches. For example, a RBA forces consideration of the added dimensions of accountability, the rule of law, and the interdependence and interrelatedness of the ‘right to water’ with all other human rights when developing projects in the water sector. Applying a RBA has added-value, in terms of improved accountability, empowerment of vulnerable and marginalised groups and further realisation of all human rights. Anchoring human rights principles into projects and programmes and recognising them as rights, makes them non-negotiable, consistent and legitimate. Moreover, stakeholders perceive the level of commitment from duty-bearers to be higher than normal in the application of a RBA. In addition, a RBA has greater chance of making a sustainable impact, as it addresses development challenges in a more holistic manner, and opens up a new angle to approach duty-bearers. Experience has further proven that as active subjects, citizens have rights, but with those come responsibilities that must also be emphasised (e.g. with the right to water comes the responsibility to pay affordable tariffs). However, whilst the added-value of a RBA is substantial in theory, translating the RBA rhetoric into reality in the form of concrete interventions on the ground is challenging. The RBA conceptual framework has to be applied in a pragmatic and context-sensitive approach.


  1. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in resolution 2200A (XXI) in December 1966 and entered into force in January 1976.
  2. More information about MDG7 is available at
  3. CESCR, General Comment No.3, ‘The Nature of States Parties Obligations’
  4. The WHO Joint Monitoring Programme (2008) gives the number of “household connections” as 87% and 42% in urban and rural areas respectively. But the reality is that the water supplied through these pipes is not fit for human consumption.
  5. Governments of FBH and RS (2003), ‘National Environmental Action Plan’.
  6. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre data
  7. MDG Needs Assessment of Tajikistan’s Water Supply and Sanitation Sector, p2.
  8. Tajikistan’s Poverty Reduction Strategy paper for 2007-2009, p11.
  9. Tajikistan’s National Development Strategy, p50.
  10. MDG Needs Assessment of Tajikistan’s Water Supply and Sanitation Sector, p2.
  11. MDG Needs Assessment of Tajikistan’s Water Supply and Sanitation Sector, p2.
  12. Tajikistan ratified in 1999.

  • CESCR, (1999). General Comment No.3: The Nature of States’ Parties Obligations.
  • Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, (2003). National Environmental Action Plan. Governments of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • Republic of Tajikistan, (2007). National Development Strategy of the Republic of Tajikistan for the Period to 2015. Government of Tajikistan, Tajikistan. Page 50.
  • Republic of Tajikistan, (2007). Tajikistan Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper for 2007-2009. Government of Tajikistan, Tajikistan. Page 11.
  • UN, (2005). MDG Needs Assessment of Tajikistan’s Water Supply and Sanitation Sector. UNDP, Tajikistan. Page 2.

See also

A Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to Improve Water Governance in Europe & CIS

Bosnia and Herzegovina/sector assessment

Tajikistan/sector assessment

Kosovo/sector assessment

External Resources

IUCN's RBA Portal


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