“Water is fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity. It is a pre-requisite to the realization of all other human rights.”
With those words, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights today took the unprecedented step of agreeing on a “General Comment” on water as a human right. A “General Comment” is an interpretation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The 145 countries which have ratified the Covenant will now be compelled to progressively ensure that everyone has access to safe and secure drinking water and sanitation facilities – equitably and without discrimination.
In the last decade, progress has been slow in providing “improved drinking water” (which may mean as little as a protected well or spring within half an hour’s walk) to the estimated 1.1 billion people who do not have access to it. Sanitation progress has also been slow and around 2.4 billion people still do not have access to, even, a safe latrine.
“Countries will be required to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ individuals’ rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. This is a major boost in efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of halving the number of people without access to water and sanitation by 2015 - two pre-requisites for health,” commented WHO Director-General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland.
The General Comment states that “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, affordable, physically accessible, safe and acceptable water for personal and domestic uses.” It requires them to adopt national strategies and plans of action which will allow them to “move expeditiously and effectively towards the full realization of the right to water”. These strategies should be based on human rights law and principles, cover all aspects of the right to water and the corresponding obligations of countries, define clear objectives, set targets or goals to be achieved and the time-frame for their achievement, and formulate adequate policies and corresponding indicators.
The General Comment is important because it provides a tool for civil society to hold governments accountable for ensuring equitable access to water. It also provide a framework to assist governments in establishing effective policies and strategies that yield real benefits for health and society. An important aspect of the value it provides is in focusing attention and activities on those most adversely affected including the poor and vulnerable.
Inadequate water and sanitation are primary causes of diseases such as malaria, cholera, dysentery, schistosomiasis, infectious hepatitis and diarrhoea, associated with 3.4 million deaths each year. Inadequate water and sanitation is also a major cause of poverty and the growing disparity between rich and poor.
Recognizing the importance of environmental determinants of health, the World Health Organization recently launched the Healthy Environments for Children Initiative, an alliance which will work at country level to address the main environmental risk factors to children’s healthy development, including water and sanitation.
“It is estimated that almost one third of the global burden of disease (for all ages) can be attributed to environmental risk factors. Over 40% of this burden falls on children under five years of age, even though they make up only about 10% of the world's population. This area is, therefore, an urgent priority for WHO’s work. The fact that water is now regarded as a basic human right will give all members of the Alliance an effective tool to make a real difference at country level,” added Dr Brundtland.
The General Comment also stipulates that water, like health, is an essential element for achieving other human rights, especially the rights to adequate food and nutrition, housing and education.