The Human Right to Water and Sanitation – A Quick History

The human right to water and sanitation has only recently been recognised as an official human right.  Its historical development can be traced back to the 1977 Mar del Plata Water Conference but it has taken over 30 years for both water and sanitation to become fully recognised as human rights. This article tracks the development of the right to water and sanitation from the 1977 conference through to 2010 and then up to the present day.

1977-1999: First Recognition

At the 1977 conference, water was recognised as a right for the first time and from there it has developed and evolved into the human right of water and sanitation that it is today. With mentions in Article 14(2)(h) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women  in 1979 and Article 24(2) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, water and sanitation were actively being discussed and realised as important aspects of human life that needed to be respected internationally. With further mentions at the 1992 Dublin Conference and Rio Summit and the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development it was in 1999 that the General Assembly first passed a resolution that included the right to water. In Resolution 54/175 (The Right to Development), Article 12 states ‘The rights to food and clean water are fundamental human rights and their promotion constitutes a moral imperative both for national Governments and for the international community1“.

2000-2004: Recognition in International Law

As the world moved into the new millennium, the right to water and sanitation evolved more progressively culminating in the human right it is today. It formed part of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and in the same year the right to water was confirmed in international law through General Comment 15 made by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. . The right to water was realised through Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This was the first time that the right to water was officially recognised in international law.

2005-20015: UN Decade for Water and Human Right Status

From the years of 2005 to 2010 the UN has promoted Water for Life as its overall mission. As a result of this, every UN agency would have to be active in further understanding and improving the rights to water with the main aims to fulfill international commitments to water, raise its profile globally and empower those who promote and help with water projects worldwide. A summary of the Decade of Water for Life can be seen in the video below.

Also in 2005, the rights to water and sanitation were discussed in the Draft Guidelines for the Realization of the Right to Drinking Water and Sanitation which was followed up in 2006 with the Human Rights Council decision 2/104 which looked into the surrounding human rights obligations to the rights of water and sanitation. By 2007, a report looking into these obligations was published stating that “It is now the time to consider access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right, defined as the right to equal and nondiscriminatory access to a sufficient amount of safe drinking water for personal and domestic uses… to sustain life and health”.

In 2008 and 2009 the Human Rights Council passed two resolutions, 7/22 and 12/8, where an independent expert was appointed to look into water and sanitation rights and subsequently recognised that countries needed to address the issues of water and sanitation around the world. The human right to water and sanitation were then first officially recognised in the General Assembly’s 2010 Resolution 64/292. This was followed up by the Human Rights Council’s Resolution 15/9 which recognised this human right in international law. Finally, in 2011, the Human Rights Council produced Resolution 16/2 which extended the work of the Special Rapporteur for a period of three years to overlook the human right to water and sanitation.

2015-Present Day: Developmental Goals

In 2015 the world leaders of the time got together to announce 17 Global Goals to achieve sustainable development by the year 2030. Water and sanitation have been afforded their own goal known as Sustainable Development Goal 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation. SDG 6 has its own specific targets:

  • To achieve equitable universal access to drinking water for everyone by 2030.
  • To achieve access to equitable and adequate hygiene and sanitation for all by 2030 while also ending all open defecation.
  • Reduce pollution to improve the world’s water quality by 2030. Including ending the release of bad chemicals, materials and waste into water sources.
  • Reduce those who are affected by water scarcity by 2030.
  • To have implemented management of integrated water resources by 2030.
  • To protect and restore ecosystems that rely on and are affected by water by 2020.
  • To increase worldwide cooperation and support to developing countries of water and sanitation based programmes by 2030.
  • To increase and support local community participation around the world in dealing with water and sanitation management.

SDG 6 sets out goals to be achieved by 2020 and 2030 but also recognises other issues that surround achieving the universal human right to water and sanitation. SDG 6 recognises that the needs of women and girls in vulnerable situations needs to have special attention afforded to it. Further information on SDG 6 can be found here.

Future: Resolving the World Water Crisis

The human right to water and sanitation has come a long way since the first 1977 Water Conference at Mar del Plata but it still has a long way to go in practice. With great advancements over the last 30 years and following the UN Decade of Water for Life and water and sanitation’s inclusion in the Sustainable Development Goals the world is still facing a terrible water crisis. With the ecological crisis and global warming causing further droughts, flash floods, unpredictable weather systems and raising sea levels, access to and availability of clean water sources are becoming more sparse. Further work needs to be done to ensure water is accessible to all and that it becomes a sustainable resource. It forms one of the key building blocks of life and it is something that we cannot simply ignore.

All of the work that is undertaken at WellFound looks to ensure that local communities are able to reach clean water, access safe and hygienic sanitation facilities and grow a market garden. With history of working in Senegal and Burkina Faso, we are currently working in and raising further funds to help more communities in Guinea-Bissau. We are currently working in Binhome, Bissunga, Quedet and Tama. Please support us by donating here.


Footnotes:

1 http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/54/175

Sources:

http://www.globalgoals.org/
http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/pdf/human_right_to_water_and_sanitation_milestones.pdf
http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs391/en/

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