Essay: What exactly is “The Right to Water”?


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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

(by Juerg Staudenmann, Water Governance Advisor, UNDP Bratislava Regional Centre)

"Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right. Contaminated water jeopardizes both the physical and social health of all people. It is an affront to human dignity" – Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General
"Access to clean water should be enshrined in international law as a human right" – Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union (source:, 12 June 2007)


Over one billion people lack access to safe drinking water...

...and that’s only just part of the picture! The cruel irony is that water costs the most for those that can afford it the least: water in all major slums of this world – available only in low quality and quantity – at the same time costs much more than in London or New York!

But apart from human consumption and household use (which accounts for less than 20% on a global average), water is the basis for a variety of other purposes ranging from sanitation to manufacturing of goods. In many developing and transition countries, the most important, and by far largest, use of water is for food production: To produce the daily nutrition minimum of 2,500 Kcal per person, some 3,500 liters of water are needed as input – under the condition that most of it is vegetarian staple food and vegetables. Substituting 20% of a daily food ration by meat products increases the needed water-input by 3-4 times!

Particularly in arid regions where agricultural production relies on irrigation, water therefore is often in short supply – or to be more precise: the various uses and user groups are competing over this resource with the common result that more powerful user groups (such as large farmers, big cities or industries) "win" over poor or disadvantaged groups like rural families, subsistence farmers, an in particular often women.

"Each one of the eight Millennium Development Goals is inextricably tied to the next, so if we fail on the water and sanitation goal, hope of reaching the other seven rapidly fades." – Kemal Derviş, UNDP Administrator

Box 1 – Water as Basis to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals

The Human Development Report 2006 [ Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis (--> additional materials here) emphasizes the implications lack of water (and sanitation) has on other areas of development and the MDG’s:

  • Health: Lack of sufficient quality water is a cause of illnesses such as diarrhea, which kills over 2 million people every year (4,900 children deaths a day in poor countries). Maternal and child health, but also HIV/AIDS and water-transmitted diseases (e.g. malaria) are directly linked to hygiene and thus safe water: Almost 50 % of all people in developing countries are suffering at any given time from a health problem caused by water and sanitation deficits.
  • Education: Children – and foremost girls – kept from attending school as they are sick, have to carry water for the family, or because of the lacking of adequate sanitation in schools: 443 million school days each year are lost to water-related illnesses;
  • Extreme hunger and poverty: Water is essential for growing food, and beyond subsistence also for allowing small-scale family farms and enterprises. Lack of water through health aspects also indirectly affects the ability to work, and there’s a viscous cycle between poverty, lack of safe water, illnesses or diseases and the inability to earn an income;
  • Discrimination & Gender: Indigenous peoples, the poor or women often suffer the most from the deprivation of water accessibility. It’s typically also women and girls who are responsible to fetch water, often from far-away wells, on top of their daily duties – and sometimes at a risk of criminality: Millions of women spend up to four hours a day collecting water;

(More facts around water and how it links to the MDG agenda can be fond on-line here)

But the fact remains that the most important aspect of water is its very basis for life. Every single person on this planet needs suitable drinking water each and every day – and this should therefore be enshrined as a Human Right!

Applying the concept of Human Rights to "access to water"

The General Comment No. 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Twenty-ninth session, Geneva, 11-29 November 2002), paras. 3, 11) therefore interprets the "right to water" as entitlement for "every human being to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use".

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states further: "Water should be treated as a social and cultural good, and not primarily as an economic good" [and] "the right to water clearly falls within the category of guarantees essential for securing an adequate standard of living, particularly since it is one of the most fundamental conditions for survival"

Since General Comments do not have the force of law of an international treaty, there is some controversy about the exact interpretation of the "right to water" ranging from full support to strong opposition. Arguments include:

  • Support: Anything as essential to life and prosperity as water is a basic human need, and therefore should be guaranteed as such. It is the state that has to ensure equal access for all its citizens to enough water for their basic needs and livelihood.
  • Opposition: Defining water as an obligation of the state to provide water to all its citizens – regardless of the efforts and costs this implies – is impossible to be enforced; it even undermines the origin and focus of this concept as being concerned with civil liberties and freedom from oppression. The concept of "Water as Human Right", like other economic and social rights, should be interpreted merely as a "programmatic clause instead of an enforceable right"

(source: Poverty-Environment Partnership – Linking Poverty Reduction and Water Management (March 2006)

UNDP’s position is to follow the principle of (a) guaranteeing a minimum amount of water for direct consumption – 20 liter at least – for each individual person (b) at an affordable price based on the “equality” principle: For those who can’t afford it for free.

Box 2 – "Make Water a Human Right – and mean it!

This is the main conclusion of the HDR 2006 Beyond Scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis. Taking this recommendation and the “Right to Water” serious would mean:

  • (Fresh) water is a legal entitlement, rather than a pure commodity on one hand, or a service provided on a charitable basis on the other;
  • Water resources are understood as a common public good: Rather than water itself, the services associated with its collection, processing and distribution are economic commodities that can be traded – under very strict rules – to ensure accessibility and affordability for all;
  • Achieving basic and improved levels of access should be accelerated;
  • The focus on "least served" has first priority, as to thus decrease inequalities;
  • Communities and vulnerable groups will be empowered to take part in decision-making processes;
  • Employ the means and mechanisms available in the United Nations human rights system to monitor the progress of states in realizing the right to water, and to hold governments accountable.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Recognizing the “Right to Water” leads to basic governmental obligations, comparable to other human rights, which can be categorized [1] as obligations to:

  1. Respect: governments must not interfere directly or indirectly with "the enjoyment of the right o water"
  2. Protect: governments must prevent third parties (e.g. private corporations) from interfering in any way with the "enjoyment of the right to water";
  3. Fulfill: governments must adopt the necessary measures to achieve the full realization of the right to water.

The current discussion is about how to adopt a Human Rights-based Approach in the water sector (to read more about HRBA read e.g. Emilie Filmer-Wilson's article). The aim is to base projects and activities on the main principles of non-discrimination and inclusion, participation and empowerment, and transparency and accountability, as well as the rule of law (political and institutional framework for the right to water).

The "Right to Water" is described in a joint UNDP-IUCN technical paper as "access to water of adequate quality in sufficient quantity to meet basic human needs":

  • Accessibility: water (i) within safe physical reach, (ii) affordable for all, and (iii) accessible to all in law and fact;
  • Adequate quality: water suitable and safe for personal or domestic use
  • Sufficient quantity: sufficient and continuous water supply for personal or domestic use

What is UNDP doing to translate the “Right to Water” into Action?

The new UNDP Water Governance Strategy is picking up the HDR 2006 recommendation and re-focuses UNDP’s work in the water sector on Water Governance and equitable access to water (and sanitation). Two of the five key strategic priorities of this recently adopted paper directly speak to this point:

  • "National strategies for equitable management and governance of water" – lead a UN-coordinated approach to country level action & advocacy on water targets, including water policy reforms, awareness raising and capacity building;
  • "Local action on water and sanitation" – advocacy for decentralization and improved water supply & sanitation service delivery at the basin or community level, local water governance reforms, support to entrepreneurships, capacity building and gender mainstreaming;

The recently ratified UNECE Protocol on Water and Health is probably the closets any inter-state agreement has ever come to the enforcement of “Water as Human Right” globally. As part of the UNECE Water Convention, it is a basis for the countries in Europe and the CIS to translate words into deeds. UNDP, together with its partners, is taking this as an opportunity to support the countries of the former Soviet Union to realize 100% access to water and sanitation for all their citizens.

  • * *

The UNDP Bratislava Regional Centre is now leading the process of developing a new regional programme, aiming at support to selected country offices to establish pilot project. The suggested approach is to adopt a “Human Rights based Approach” aiming at (a) looking at water management from a holistic, integrated perspective and (b) mainstreaming the water issue into Poverty Reduction Strategies, National Development Plans, or similar instruments. The cross-cutting nature of “water as development driver” further suggests close links with areas such as gender, conflict prevention, Climate Change and Adaptation, and of course the promotion of Human Rights.

See also


  1. The Right to Water - WHO Publication)


 Right to Water - JS 13Jul07.doc

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