Safe drinking water, sanitation, are ‘basic human rights’: new UN Water Development report

UN Environment/ Hannah McNeish Before a UN Environment-supported rainwater harvesting project was set up at Kingani secondary school in the coastal town of Bagamoyo, the drinking water used to be so salty that students would complain of headaches, stomach aches and ulcers.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


Safe water and access to proper sanitation are essential to eradicate poverty, build peaceful societies and ensure that no one is left behind on the path towards sustainable development, according to the 2019 UN World Water Development Report, launched on Tuesday in Geneva.

In collaboration with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the World Water Assessment Programme, the report Leaving no one Behind, stresses that waterfor all is “entirely achievable”.

“Access to safe, affordable and reliable drinking water and sanitation services are basic human rights”, the report spells out. And yet, billions still lack these facilities.

The report underscores that exclusion, discrimination, poverty and inequalities are among the main obstacles to achieving the water-related goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

While the wealthy generally receive high levels of service at low prices, the poor often pay a much higher price for services of similar, or lesser quality.

“It is insane that often in slum areas, people have to pay more for a volume of water than people living it better off neighbourhoods”, Stefan Uhlenbrook, UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme coordinator, said at the launch.

Moreover, rapid urbanization means slums will continue to develop, excluding those who live there from the benefits of having an address, or water and sanitation networks, leaving them reliant on costly alternatives.

He pointed out that slum-dwellers pay up to 10-20 per cent more for not having piped in access to water and sanitation so “depend on water vendors, kiosks and other things”.

Equal access to water for agricultural production, even if only for supplemental watering of crops, can make the difference between farming as a mere means of survival and farming as a reliable source of income, according to the report.

“Three-quarters of people living in extreme poverty live in rural areas” flagged Mr. Uhlenbrook, adding that the vast majority are smallholder family farmers, who, while constituting the backbone of national food chains, often suffer from food insecurity and malnutrition.

‘The plight of displaced people’

The report discusses the barriers that refugees and internally-displaced people often face in accessing water supply and sanitation services.

By the end of the 2017, conflict, persecution, or human rights violations forcibly displaced an unprecedented 68.5 million from their homes. And sudden-onset disasters displaced another 18.8 million.

Mass displacement places strain upon natural resources and water-related services at transition and destination points for both existing populations and new arrivals, creating potential inequalities and a source of conflicts among them.

Delivering a keynote address at the launch event, 19-year-old Syrian refugee Maya Ghazal, advocate for refugee rights, shared her experience as a 12-year old.

“In 2011 the flames of the Syrian war sparked making it hard to maintain normal life requirements, gas, electricity or water”, she began. “I was 12 at the time and with my two younger brothers, we were tasked to be responsible for water”.

Responsible for the family supply of water, the then pre-teen shared some of her “water hacks”.

“First of all” she informed the group, “make sure that you install a water tank on your roof and make sure it has a centrifugal pump, so you will always have water, even when the primary source is cut off”.

She cautioned to “always” check that the primary water source is pumping water because when “war activities” happen, water would be cut off.

Her other “hacks” included limiting showers, “practice climbing” for going up to the roof to check on the water tank and “be nice to your neighbor” in case you need to borrow water.

UNECO Special Envoy for Science for Peace, Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan, told the gathering that while States bear the major responsibility in ensuring the human right to access water and sanitation, “the plight of displaced people starkly highlights that ensuring water provision is a collective responsibility for the entire international community”.

Meeting challenges

The report lays out recommendations on how to overcome exclusion and inequality for everyone to access water and sanitation, including by highlighting that investing in it makes good economic sense.

While prioritizing those most in need, the report maintains that international human rights law obliges States to impartially work for all to have access to water resources while shining a spotlight on accountability, transparency and justice as good governance features.

Finally, Leaving no one behind points out that tailored responses targeting specific groups can help ensure that affordable water supply and sanitation services are available to all.

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