Climate Change and the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation


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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

Publication Title

Climate Change and the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation

Publication Type

Position paper


Publication Date


Publication URL




At present, 2-3 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, 884 million lack access to an improved water source, 2.6 billion do not have access to improved sanitation, and 1.1 billion still practice open defecation. The human rights to water and sanitation are inextricably linked, in functional and normative terms. These rights are fundamental to human dignity and essential for the realisation of many other internationally recognised human rights. They are also the foundations for public health and human development. For example, an estimated 1.6 million people, mostly children under the age of five, die each year from water and sanitation-related diseases. Poor sanitation may be linked to as much as a quarter of all under-five deaths, with diarrhoea among the leading causes. The outrage, in these cases, is numbed by the statistics.

Climate change presents a serious obstacle to the realisation of the rights to water and sanitation. Water is a key medium through which climate change impacts upon human populations and ecosystems, particularly due to predicted changes in water quality and quantity. The impacts of climate change need to be seen in light of its direct effects on water resources as well as its indirect influence on other external drivers of change, in particular increasing population pressures and changing consumption patterns. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that in many regions of the globe, changes to the supply and quality of freshwater resources resulting from climate change may imperil sustainable development, poverty reduction and child mortality goals.

The rights to water and to sanitation impose specific legal obligations, which climate change policy responses must take into account. The human right to water means that everyone has the right to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses, without discrimination. The right to sanitation means that everyone has the right to access to sanitation which is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable, and that provides privacy and ensures dignity, without discrimination. As with all socioeconomic rights, the rights to water and sanitation entail obligations of both an immediate and progressive kind. While human rights duties are owed principally by the State to individuals within that State’s own territory, there is increasing support in international law for duties of States to respect and protect human rights in third countries (including qualified duties to ensure that transnational corporations do not violate human rights elsewhere), and cooperate to support the realisation of human rights globally.

Not every adverse impact of climate change constitutes a human rights violation. The right to water “for personal and domestic uses” requires only a small fraction of the overall water supply. Lack of sufficient access to water for household use is more a function of power, poverty and inequality, and a failure of governments to prioritise water allocation for basic needs and human dignity, than it is about scarcity per se. Moreover the question of whether a duty-bearer (usually the State) has failed in its duty is a context-specific inquiry, complicated in many cases by the quintessentially cross-border nature of the climate change problem.

Nevertheless, whether or not it constitutes a violation in a legal sense, climate change clearly will, and already does, undermine the enjoyment of the rights to water and sanitation by causing floods and droughts, changes in precipitation and temperature extremes that result in water scarcity and increased competition for water resources, disruption to waterborne sanitation systems, contamination of drinking water and exacerbation of the spread of disease. Water scarcity may also result in increasing the cost of water and sanitation provision. The poor, who are among the most vulnerable, are also likely to be affected the most.

All States have formally subscribed to both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and U.N. human rights treaties, and should therefore implement their legal obligations in a coherent manner. However, notwithstanding these facts, water and sanitation have yet to gain any appreciable traction in either international climate change negotiations, mitigation policies or national adaptation plans. Human rights, in all these contexts, have been left out in the cold.

The human rights framework does not pretend to offer a blueprint for the complex trade-offs and policy choices involved with mitigating and adapting to climate change. However the human rights to water and sanitation call attention to the impacts of climate change upon individuals, putting a human face to a problem that might otherwise seem abstract or distant. The human rights framework provides a complementary normative frame of reference as well as clearly defined substantive and process criteria to guide the difficult policy choices to be made in the context of climate change.

The inter-linked and inter-dependent nature of human rights calls for more holistic approaches and inter-sectoral thinking in climate change policy-making. The human rights to health, housing (including secure tenure), and food are foremost among these, along with human rights guarantees for greater transparency, active, free and meaningful participation, and strengthen accountability in climate change decision-making. Climate change, including its projected impacts upon the rights to water and sanitation, should be seen as an integral part of national development and poverty reduction planning processes, for the sake of improved legal and policy coherence.

Improved water resource management should be a central component of climate change adaptation strategies. It will also be a vital consideration for many mitigation activities, including hydropower, agriculture and forestry projects. The importance of water and sanitation for successful climate mitigation and adaptation, and the rights to water and sanitation more specifically, must be properly and adequately reflected within the agreement to be reached by the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 16) in Mexico in December 2010 as well as in processes beyond the COP 16. To this end, this paper provides a range of recommendations to guide negotiators, States and other policy-makers in the climate negotiations and in climate policy more broadly.


Executive summary
A. Legal obligations applicable to the human rights to water and sanitation, and to climate change
Obligations to “respect, protect and fulfil”
Indivisibility, inter-relatedness and inter-dependence of human rights
Obligations concerning international assistance and cooperation
Legal obligations of States under the climate change regime
Compatibility between the human rights and climate change legal regimes
B. Adverse impacts of climate change on the human rights to water and sanitation
Availability of water and sanitation
Quality of water and sanitation
Accessibility of water and sanitation infrastructure
Affordability of water and sanitation
Acceptability of water and sanitation services
C. Integrating human rights to water and sanitation in climate change policy-making
How human rights can influence climate change policy-making
Climate change mitigation measures
National adaptation measures
National Adaptation Plans of Action (NAPAs)
Nairobi Work Programme (NWP)
Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM)
International aid and financing for climate change mitigation and adaptation
The private sector and technology policy
Procedural rights: strengthening transparency, participation and accountability
Transparency and access to information
Integrated climate change and human rights impact assessments
Accountability and redress
Policy coherence and inter-sectoral coordination and mobilisation
D. Concluding remarks


See also

The Right to Water

Climate change

External Resources



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