Making water a human right

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UN Photo: Logan-Abassi. A-boy-in-Cité-SoleilIn 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that water and sanitation should be a human right. Water as a human right is as much about the quality, making sure that the water is clean and you do not get sick from drinking it, as it is about access.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said: "Safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are crucial for poverty reduction, crucial for sustainable development and crucial for achieving any and every one of the Millennium Development Goals".

The right to water is not specifically mentioned in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, without access to water, other rights could not be exercised such as the "right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being" and the fact that "Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance."

Article 6 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also guarantees the right to life. Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights guarantee an adequate standard of living.

The right to water was not considered as a right in itself in earlier UN human rights texts, but merely as a tool to guarantee other rights. However in recent years water has become a more important issue leading to several international water conferences such as Mar del Plata (1977) and New Delhi (1990).

In September 2000, when the General Assembly decided to commit to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), MDG7 aimed to halve the population without sustainable access to water by 2015.

In 2006, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted decision 2/104 "human rights and access to water". The HRC appointed Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque as the independent expert on the right to water and sanitation. She published her first report on 1st July 2009.

And finally in 2010, the General Assembly declared access to water as a human right in a landmark resolution. "Everyone has the right to water, no matter where he/she lives," Ms. De Albuquerque said of this declaration.

With the recognition of water as a human right, the UN is taking action. The UN will use its available means and mechanisms to monitor the progress of nations in realizing the right to water and sanitation and to hold governments accountable. This does not mean that there is one globally coordinated and integrated policy on water within the UN. The problems concerning water are too vast and diverse to be tackled by a "one fits all" policy.

In 2003, UN Water was founded as an "inter-agency mechanism" with the task of enhancing coordination and coherence between the UN agencies in the field of water and sanitation.

However the UN cannot sanction governments.

Having recognized safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right, pressure is now on local and national authorities to provide a better infrastructure for drains and clean water.

For many of those who have access to water, it is either too expensive or suitable for consumption, often exposed to dangerous levels of biological contaminants and chemical pollutants partly due to inadequate management of urban, industrial or agricultural waste water. Simply put, for many people water is not yet a human right.

Access to safe water should no longer be seen as a service, but as a human right. States and organizations should work towards using economic resources and technology to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable water particularly in the developing countries.

There is certainly no time to waste in taking action. Water challenges will increase significantly in the coming years due to the fact that population growth and rising incomes will lead to greater water consumption, as well as more waste. The urban population in developing countries will grow dramatically, generating demand well beyond the capacity of already inadequate water supply and sanitation infrastructure and services.

According to the UN World Water Development Report, by 2050, at least one in four people is likely to live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of freshwater.