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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


Water is essential for life and Development

Water is essential for life. It is also a crucial factor for development.

Urgent Need for Effective Management of Water

The extent of the problem regarding water access is well known: 1,1 billion people do not have access to safe water and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation services. If the current trend continues, by 2015 1 billion will still have no access to drinking water and 1.7 billion will still have no access to basic sanitation. The poor and marginalised groups are disproportionately affected [1]. The UNDP 2006 Human Development Report notes that there are sufficient resources for satisfying all users’ needs but they are not adequately distributed and there is insufficient political will. “The availability of water is a concern for some countries. But the scarcity at the heart of the global water crisis is rooted in power, poverty and inequality, not in physical availability” [2].

The water crisis and subsequent problems due to inadequate water management, unequal distribution of water resources and poverty have caught international attention for decades but progress has been slow. Moreover, these problems may be exacerbated by impacts from Climate Change (see box 1).

Box 1: Climate Change impacts on water in Europe & CIS countries

The different scenarios on climate change and water for Europe & CIS countries – while not definitive—show two types of impacts of climate change in the region. One impact, especially in Eastern European countries, indicates increased rainfall patterns and thus an increase in flood risks. The second impact could increase droughts not only in Central Asia but also in some parts of Eastern Europe as a consequence of changes in the seasonality of rainfall patterns. In both cases, water supply and sanitation services will be directly affected since changes in rainfall patterns, their seasonality and their spatial distribution will influence the quantity and the quality of water resources [3]. This situation may increase conflicts over water demand prioritisation, which will need appropriate and equitable solutions [4].

Call for the Recognition of a Right to Water

The recognition of the right to water as a basic human right has been demanded by different sectors. Many working documents, dissertations and initiatives, especially from the human rights perspective, have pursued the recognition at international level of a Human Right to Water.

Since the proclamation of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-1990) by the UN, there has been a growing interest in the recognition of a right to water as well as in defining programmes aimed at guaranteeing the world’s population an adequate supply of water and sanitation. Here are some of the most important milestones in the recognition of a Right to Water:

  1. 1977: Mar de la Plata Conference established the first International Decade for Water Supply and Sanitation
  2. May 1985: the EU Council launched the water solidarity programme
  3. June 1990: the participants to the Montreal Forum drafted the Montreal Charter on Drinking Water and Sanitation
  4. September 1990: the Executive Committee of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade and the UNDP organised the Global Consultation on Safe Water and Sanitation in New Delhi
  5. 1994: a Ministerial Conference on Drinking Water Supply and Environmental Sanitation was held in Noordwijk.
  6. March 1997: the First World Water Forum drafted the Marrakech Declaration
  7. March 1998: the International Conference on Water and Sustainable Development is held in Paris
  8. 1998: the signature of the Water Manifesto claiming for the adoption of a Global Water Contract
  9. April 1999: The Madeira Declaration on the Sustainable Management of Water is adopted by the European Council on Environmental Law
  10. 2000: Cochambaba Declaration. Problems in Buenos Aires, Manila and Cochamba attract world’s attention over private sector participation in water.
  11. 2002: Comment 15 recognises water as a Human Right
  12. 2006: UN publishes the Human Development Report focusing on the water crisis
  13. 2008: UN launches the International Year of Sanitation

The New Momentum for Implementing a Human Right to Water

In recent years, a number of international events have created new momentum for the recognition and implementation of a human right to water, in particular the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) [5] by the UN General Assembly, and General Comment 15 (2002) by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Moreover the UNDP 2006 Human Development Report has highlighted the links between water and development. Water is also essential to achieve several other MDG (see box 2). These developments indicate a new political push to adopt a human rights-based approach (HRBA) to water supply and sanitation (WSS) and water governance within the more general context of human rights-based approaches to development. 2008 as the UN International Year of Sanitation provides another opportunity to examine linkages between human rights and development and water governance.

Box 2: Water as Basis to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals

The Human Development Report 2006 (Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis) emphasises the impact that lack of water (and sanitation) has on other areas of development and the MDG’s:

  1. Health: Almost 50 % of all people in developing countries are suffering at any given time from a health problem caused by water and sanitation deficits. Lack of sufficient quality water is a cause of illnesses such as diarrhoea, 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 are directly linked to hygiene and thus safe water.
  2. Education: Children – and foremost girls – are kept from attending school because of sickness, having to carry water for the family, or because of lack of adequate sanitation in schools: 443 million school days each year are lost to water-related illnesses;
  3. Extreme hunger and poverty: Water is essential for growing food, and for allowing small-scale family farms and enterprises to move beyond subsistence. Water-related health problems also affect the ability to work, resulting in a vicious cycle between poverty, lack of safe water, illnesses or diseases and the inability to earn an income;
  4. Discrimination & gender: Indigenous peoples, the poor and women often suffer the most from lack of accessibility to water. Women and girls are typically responsible for fetching water, often from far-away wells, as part of their daily duties.

There are also obstacles in the recognition and implementation of such a right. The adoption of a more practical approach to WSS and water governance, which will incorporate human rights concerns, could play a major role in overcoming these obstacles. This discussion paper explores this more practical approach in the context of water issues in Europe & CIS countries. It aims to contribute to this debate and examines main elements and opportunities for integrating HRBA concerns in water policy and projects in the region.

The Right to Water

The Recognition of a Right to Water at International Level

The right to water was already mentioned in a 1977 UN declaration [6], and it is expressly recognised in the Convention for the Rights of the Child and in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. Many academics and civil society groups consider that the right to water is an integral part of other human rights such as the right to life, the right to adequate standard of living or the right to health, and have called for its recognition as an independent human right.

In 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which is the main interpretative body of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, recognised the Right to Water as a fundamental Human Right in its General Comment No 15. The Comment is not legally binding but it provides guidelines to Parties. General Comment No. 15 defines the right to water as entitling every human being to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.

Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and multilateral environmental agreements, such as the UNECE Aarhus Convention, have increasingly promoted human rights principles that are essential elements of the right to water - public participation, the right to information, access to justice and non-discrimination.

The Normative Content of the Right to Water

According to General Comment 15 (2002) [7] the core elements of the right to water and sanitation can be summarised as follows:

  • Availability - The water supply for each person must be sufficient and continuous for personal and domestic uses. The quantity of water available for each person should correspond to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. Some individuals and groups may also require additional water due to health, climate, and work conditions;
  • Quality - The water required for each personal or domestic use must be safe, therefore free from micro-organisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person’s health. Furthermore, water should be of an acceptable colour, odour and taste for each personal or domestic use.
  • Accessibility - Water and water facilities and services have to be accessible to everyone without discrimination, within the jurisdiction of the State party. Accessibility has four overlapping dimensions:
  1. Physical accessibility - water, and adequate water facilities and services, must be within safe physical reach for all sections of the population. Sufficient, safe and acceptable water must be accessible within, or in the immediate vicinity, of each household, educational institution and workplace. All water facilities and services must be of sufficient quality, culturally appropriate and sensitive to gender, life-cycle and privacy requirements. Physical security should not be threatened during access to water facilities and services;
  1. Economic accessibility - Water, and water facilities and services, must be affordable for all. The direct and indirect costs and charges associated with securing water must be affordable, and must not compromise or threaten the realization of other Covenant rights; (...)

In addition, there are three more elements that are particularly important in the implementation of the Right to Water:

  1. Non-discrimination and inclusion of vulnerable and marginalised groups, so that the right is equally enjoyed by everybody;
  2. Access to information and participation, which is the right of all people to participate in the decision making process with no discrimination;
  3. Accountability, which allows the beneficiaries of the right to have access to effective judicial or other appropriate redressing procedures.

Implications of the Recognition on Parties to the Convention

The recognition of the right to water implies that Parties to the Convention have to adopt the necessary measures to progressively realise the right. At least each Party “must demonstrate that every effort has been made to use all resources that are at its disposition in an effort to satisfy, as a matter of priority, those minimum obligations.” [8]

In practice this implies that States have three types of obligations [9] with regard to the right to water:

  1. Respect, which requires that Parties refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of the right to water;
  2. Protect, which requires that Parties prevent third parties, such as corporations, from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to water;
  3. Fulfil, which requires that Parties adopt the necessary measure to achieve the full realisation of the right to water.

In 2006, the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights adopted the Draft Guidelines for the Realization of the Right to Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation [10].

A Human Rights-Based Approach to Water

What is a Human Rights-Based Approach?

A human rights-based approach is “a conceptual framework for the process of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights. It seeks to analyse inequalities which lie at the heart of development problems and redress discriminatory practices and unjust distributions of power that impede development progress.” [11]

A HRBA identifies rights-holders and duty-bearers and has the advantage of considering people as active players in development programming and implementation and thus leading to more sustainable human development outcomes. In addition, an effective HRBA also requires the functioning of the judiciary and other aspects of the rule of law and good governance. A HRBA provides a “powerful moral claim, as well as a source of empowerment and mobilisation” [12]. Adopting human rights-based approaches to development implies putting human rights at the heart of development projects by applying a human rights lens to the way problems are analysed and how to address them.

The UN approach to Human Rights-Based Approach to Development

In 1997 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on all entities of the UN system to mainstream human rights into their various activities and programmes within the framework of their respective mandates. Since then a number of UN agencies adopted a HRBA to their development cooperation. However each agency tended to have its own interpretation of the approach. In 2003, the UN has adopted a “Common Understanding on a Human Rights-based Approach to Development.” [13]

Box 3: The UN Common Understanding of the Human Rights-Based Approach to programming
  • All programmes of development co-operation, policies and technical assistance should further the realisation of human rights as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments.
  • Human rights standards contained in, and principles derived from, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments guide all development cooperation and programming in all sectors and in all phases of the programming process.
  • Development cooperation contributes to the development of the capacities of ‘duty-bearers’ to meet their obligations and/or of ‘rights-holders’ to claim their rights.

A human rights-based approach may become a powerful tool to address the challenges in the WSS and water governance sector since these challenges are rooted in many cases in exclusion practices and inadequate management. The 2006 UNDP Human Development Report explains very clearly where the problems on WSS lay:

“There is more than enough water in the world for domestic purposes, for agriculture and for industry. The problem is that some people— notably the poor—are systematically excluded from access by their poverty, by their limited legal rights or by public policies that limit access to the infrastructures that provide water for life and for livelihoods. In short, scarcity is manufactured through political processes and institutions that disadvantage the poor. When it comes to clean water, the pattern in many countries is that the poor get less, pay more and bear the brunt of the human development costs associated with scarcity.” [14]

Application of the Human Rights-Based Approach to Water

Applied to water, a HRBA implies that the elements outlined by General Comment 15 (2002) are put in practice and taken into account when implementing water related projects. Adherence to a rights-based approach requires the development of laws, policies, procedures and institutions progressively leading to the realisation of the right to water. It requires addressing questions regarding pricing, investment, service, delivery, as well as resource management within that frame. Ensuring access to sufficient safe water as a human right means that:

  1. fresh water is a legal entitlement, rather than solely an economic commodity or a service provided on a charitable basis;
  2. achieving basic and improved levels of access should be accelerated;
  3. the "least served" are better targeted and therefore inequalities decreased;
  4. communities and vulnerable groups will be empowered to take part in decision-making processes;
  5. the means and mechanisms available in the United Nations human rights system will be used to monitor the progress of States Parties in realising the right to water and to hold governments accountable.

Added value of a Human Rights-based Approach to Water

The advantage of recognising a human right to water is that “such a framework would have the potential of empowering the powerless by enabling them to expand their entitlements through legal and policy channels shifting accountability standards from one of needs to one of entitlements. The rights based approach contains the elements of good water governance and programming practice”, such as public participation, access to information or sustainable management.

A human rights-based approach to water and sanitation can make a significant contribution to current efforts to improve universal access to water and sanitation and to achieving the MDGs through:

  1. Improving accountability
  2. Focusing on vulnerable and marginalised groups
  3. Increasing participation in decision-making
  4. Empowering individuals and community groups (national and local civil society organisations) as well as competent authorities.

However, as mentioned by the COHRE Manual on the Right to Water and Sanitation [15] (hereinafter the COHRE Manual), the right to water alone does not solve the water sanitation crisis and it is not intended to replace development strategies. Rather, the right to water and the adoption of human rights-based approaches provide a series of principles, goals and guidance that have to be integrated into programming and planning as well as in the activities developed in relation to improving water supply and sanitation and through stand-alone projects designed to implement the right to water.

The role of key players in the implementation of the right to water

The COHRE Manual (Chapter 4) describes in detail the responsibilities of different key actors in the implementation of the right to water. This section summarises those responsibilities. National governments have ultimately the responsibility for ensuring the right to water and sanitation. However, other actors, such as regional and local governments, private sector, civil society organisations, water users or the international community also have important roles in implementation of the right.

National governments

Governments hold the main responsibility for implementation of the right to water. As mentioned before, they have three types of obligations: respect, protect and fulfil. In more concrete terms, national governments have different obligations as policy makers and regulators, as the responsible for allocation of resources and in some cases as service providers. They are responsible for developing adequate legislation integrating the main principles of the right to water, in particular adequate policies and legislation on water prices that do not disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable groups and minorities as well as mechanisms for complaints and redress. Public procurement and concession legislation is crucial to comply with the obligation to “protect” and should be complemented by guidelines on pricing and training at local level. They are also responsible for developing realistic strategies and plans to implement the right as well as for allocating the necessary resources at all levels for making it possible (according to the 2006 Human Development Report, governments should be dedicating 1% of their GDP to WSS). They also have the obligation to fight corruption and ensure transparency by collecting and disseminating information and allowing public participation of stakeholders in the decision-making process in relation to water.

Regional and local governments, and public companies

In most cases it is local authorities and public companies which operate water supply and sanitation utilities. In many cases, they are also responsible for fixing water prices. Therefore they play an essential role in the realisation of the right to water. They are responsible for progressively extending water supply and sanitation services to cover the entire population as well as schools, health centres and other public centres. They also have the obligation to ensure the affordability of water, to fight corruption, develop complaint and redress mechanisms, and to ensure transparency and public participation, especially in the case of restructuring water services (e.g., liberalisation, adoption of public private partnerships and so on).

Private service providers

Private service providers have the same obligations as those listed above regarding water supply and sanitation since there is a transfer of responsibilities and duties from the public to the private sector. It is important that they comply with their commitments under the concession contracts and with delivery standards, including extension of water supply and sanitation to low income and low populated areas. They are obliged not to promote corruption and to adopt transparent pricing policies that do not disproportionally affect the poor and marginalised groups or minorities as well as to engage consultations with civil society organisations. Even small-scale providers are obliged to providing services of adequate quality at an affordable cost.

Independent monitoring bodies including judges

One of the key elements of the implementation of the right to water is to have adequate complaint and redress mechanisms. These mechanisms should be established at national or local level. In addition, accountability is generally enhanced when an independent body monitors the performance of public institutions, or when applicable, of private sectors providers. These bodies can be ombudsmen, human rights commissions, or specific arbitration bodies without forgetting the role of courts and judges. Independent monitoring bodies can support the implementation of the right by reviewing the legislation and policies from a human rights perspective, investigating complaints and ensuring adequate redress, and monitoring compliance with national legislation on WSS and water governance by governmental bodies and private parties.

Individuals and communities

Individuals and communities are the main holders of the right to water. However they should not be perceived as passive recipients but rather as active players in the implementation of the right. The COHRE Manual specifically highlights the role of individuals and communities to identify the needs and priorities of the members of the community, to monitor service provision, to propose policies and to participate in the consideration of such policies. For their effective participation it is essential that they are adequately informed about their rights. The COHRE Manual calls for an active citizen who looks for information on his/her rights and contributes to the dissemination of water-related information. Similarly, individuals and communities have to contribute to the sustainability of the service by paying water bills or even by participating in the provision of the service as such. They also have to adopt sustainable behaviours by avoiding contamination (e.g., animal waste) and limiting water consumption.

Civil society organisations

Civil society organisations include NGOs, social movements, faith-based organisations, research and academic institutions, media or professional bodies. They play an essential role at national and local level in the implementation of the right to water. CSOs provide information on the elements of the right to water, through campaigns and capacity building and education activities. They also have a watchdog role, e.g., by monitoring government and private providers’ actions in the area denouncing illegal behaviours, including irregular concession policies. They can also assist individuals and communities in filing their complaints.

Industrial and agricultural water users

Agricultural and industrial users are in many countries the main consumers of water as well as the main polluters. They therefore have a key responsibility to “not to curtail the essential domestic uses of water”. In particular they have to adopt responsible behaviours by minimising water use and avoiding over-abstraction and by minimising contamination of water resources, e.g., adopting less polluting technologies, preventing discharges into drinking water catchment areas or by minimising the use of pesticides and fertilisers. Finally they have to pay any charges incurred for WSS services.

International and regional organisations, and bilateral donors

International organisations and bilateral donors are also responsible for the implementation of the right to water. They can play an essential role by providing financial and technical assistance to governments, CSOs and communities. In addition, they are required to review their cooperation policies to make them compatible and consistent with the right to water and to ensure coordination and coherence as far as possible in relation to government policies and activities carried out by other international institutions or donors.


  1. WHO and UNICEF, Meeting the MDG drinking water and sanitation target: the urban and rural challenge of the decade (2006)
  2. UNDP, 2006 Human Development Report, Beyond scarcity: power, poverty and the global water crisis, p.2 available at
  3. Time to Adapt – Climate Change and the European Water Dimension Discussion Paper: Water Supply and Sanitation Services. Background paper to the Conference organised by the German Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (May 2007) ( See as well, proceedings to the Workshop organised by the European Commission, Climate Change Impacts on the Water Cycle, Resources and Quality Research-Policy interface (September 2006), (
  4. Choices may have to be made concerning the allocation of water resources, and criteria and indicators need to be developed on the basis of which such choices can be made
  5. The principles of human dignity, equality and equity– the basis of human rights development and theory—are at the heart of the MDGs. In addition, the Millennium Declaration makes a specific commitment “to strive for the full protection and promotion in all our countries of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights for all”. The MDGs also give an opportunity to support governments to meet these commitments, both legal (such as human rights standards anchored in international instruments) and political (the MDGs)
  6. UN Conference on Water (1977) Mar del Plata Action Plan, preamble.
  7. General Comment 15, para 12
  8. General Comment No 3, para 10
  9. These obligations are common to the realisation and implementation of all human rights
  11. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Frequently asked questions on a human rights-based approach to development cooperation, 2006, p 15
  12. A Human Right to Water, Summary report of a Seminar jointly organised by the UN association in Canada and the Human Security and Human Rights Bureau – March 2007
  14. UNDP Human Development Report, Beyond Scarcity, p. 3.
  15. Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAs), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDS) and UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), Manual on the Right to Water and Sanitation, A tool to assist policy makers and practitioners develop strategies for implementing the human right to water and sanitation, 2007, p.17

See also

External resources


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