It’s a human right! Reanimating the international guarantee of water and sanitation for all in 2020

6 min read
Tantely, 8, and her schoolfriends outside the toilet and shower block at her school, Tsarafangitra village, Belavabary commune, Madagascar, August 2019.
Image: WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

Why does the UN's adoption last month of the resolution on the human rights to water and sanitation matter? Katie Tobin evaluates the resolution's important new inclusions of language on gender equality, menstrual health and climate change, what more needs to be done, and what lies ahead in 2020 for pushing rights into reality.

A big cardboard box of black tote bags blaring 'IT’S A HUMAN RIGHT' in white capital letters welcomed me to WaterAid’s New York office when I returned from maternity leave in December. It was an especially timely reminder on the cusp of 2020, a year heralding the ten-year anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s recognition of water and sanitation as universal human rights. Given the year’s inauspicious beginning, with forest fires raging in Australia and the looming threat of worsening conflict in the Middle East, it’s clear we need multilateralism more than ever if we’re to achieve collective goals of making the world a more liveable and equitable place.

International norms stipulating that everyone, everywhere has a right to water and sanitation can be powerful buttresses for achieving the mission of our organisation and sector – and sources of inspiration gravely needed to spur action.

The 2019 resolution was a milestone

Last month, the UN General Assembly confirmed a resolution on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. Adopting it by consensus, every member government agreed that climate change and inequalities (particularly gender) challenge the universal fulfilment of these rights. While it doesn’t go far enough in affirming governments’ commitments under the international human rights framework, the resolution expands the scope of previous UN decisions to reflect the ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Focus on gender equality, including menstrual health

Specifically, the resolution outlines the negative impact that women and girls’ insufficient access to water and sanitation has on gender equality, and commits to ‘ensure access to safe and affordable drinking water and adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all women and girls, as well as for menstrual hygiene management’, including in public spaces.

Importantly, it frames menstrual health beyond services, as an issue of ‘stigma and shame’, providing an important foundation for our advocacy at UN and national levels, which is grounded in our work on menstrual health.

Sabina washes clothes including, menstrual pads, by her local water source in Kavre, Nepal.
Sabina washes clothes, including menstrual pads, at her local water source in Kavre, Nepal.
Image: WaterAid/Samjhana

Recognising the unequal effects of climate change

One of the most significant aspects of the resolution is its recognition of the links between climate and water, and of the overall detrimental – and unequal – effects of climate change on the realisation of human rights. Governments acknowledge ‘the need to enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change’ – objectives very much in line with our positions on climate and our upcoming advocacy around this in 2020.

Like WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), climate change is an issue of intergenerational and global justice. The community surrounding the UN in New York offers an important locus to integrate the two issues as part of the international push to advance sustainable development and human rights.

Is the EU leading the way?

The human rights obligations outlined in the resolution extend to development programmes, particularly public assistance by states or blocs and work by international organisations. The resolution ‘urges development partners to adopt a human rights-based approach when designing and implementing development programmes’. (This approach is core to WaterAid’s work, and we have implemented our Making Rights Real guide for local government officials in several countries – a concrete example of what the approach can look like in practice.)

As an important step in this direction, last June the European Union adopted Human Rights Guidelines on safe drinking water and sanitation. These support EU officials to protect, respect and promote the human rights to water and sanitation in their political and operational work. As a signal of the EU’s priorities, including a return to the importance of WASH in their development repertoire, this is a welcome step.

To improve people’s lives and reduce inequalities in WASH access, the guidelines will need to be further fleshed out and thoroughly implemented. The EU has the opportunity to lead a global recommitment to achieving human rights, particularly those to water and sanitation; we hope the EU aid programming currently being defined for 2021–27 will reflect the guidelines.

Why does the resolution matter?

Conversations in UN conference rooms in New York may seem detached from the realities of access to safe water or decent toilets. But the international ‘normative framework’ set in multilateral arenas establishes important minimum standards that apply to each of the world’s 7.5 billion plus people. It helps build the case for universal access to WASH, internationally and unequivocally.

That’s why we put stock in resolutions like the one adopted in December – they enable governments, as duty bearers, to be held to account for fulfilling the human rights of their people. Buried within the resolution’s diplomatic language are real steps forward in both commitment and newly accepted ways to conceptualise global problems and their solutions.

The resolution highlights inequalities ‘felt most acutely by those segments of the population that are already in vulnerable situations’, such as people living in informal settlements, small island states and rural communities, and Indigenous peoples. To this list we would add sanitation workers, whose right to decent work is often violated by inadequate systems of service provision and discriminatory social norms. We pushed for the resolution to include sanitation workers, suggesting language governments chose to leave out. Building on our report with the ILO, the World Bank and WHO, we will continue to advocate at the UN the human rights of sanitation workers, and to emphasise that enjoyment of one right (e.g. to sanitation) cannot come at the expense of another (e.g. decent work).

Paul Zongo, manual emptier, inside a pit, emptying a family latrine in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Paul Zongo, manual emptier, inside a pit, emptying a family latrine in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Image: WaterAid/ Basile Ouedraogo

The 2019 General Assembly resolution is a starting point

More needs to be done. When Léo Heller, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation, visited our London office in September he encouraged the WASH sector to face these questions head on. His message for International Human Rights Day calls on us all to prioritise a human rights-based approach in our work, thereby increasing the likelihood of success in our collective efforts to redress inequalities and discrimination in access to WASH. Our friends at End Water Poverty, through their #ClaimYourWaterRights campaign, are emphasising exactly this – stay tuned for the full launch in March.

This year at the UN we’ll be pushing for universal access to WASH through the Commission on the Status of Women and the Beijing+25 process, the High-Level Political Forum and its annual check-up on SDGs progress, and the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Climate Convention.

The resolution provides a conceptual and legal framework for our advocacy. We’ll be at the UN, proudly carrying our 'IT’S A HUMAN RIGHT' tote bags, pointing the way forward for the human rights to water and sanitation – ever more urgent in the face of climate change, conflict and increasing inequalities.

Katie Tobin is WaterAid's Advocacy Coordinator in New York. Follow her on Twitter @travelingKT and follow WaterAid policy, practice and advocacy @WaterAid.