Ten years of the human rights to water and sanitation: our contributions and the road ahead

10 min read
Community members gather for a ‘community sanitation triggering meeting’ organized by KIRDARC in Kharelthok Village, Kavrepalanchok District, Central Region, Bagmati Zone, Nepal on July 10, 2016. Photo by Adam Ferguson for WaterAid.
Image: WaterAid/ Adam Ferguson

Celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation by the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Louisa Gosling and Katie Tobin outline how we and our partners have contributed to advancing these rights, and look ahead to our continued work to make safe water, sanitation and hygiene available to everyone, everywhere.

28 July marks ten years since the UNGA recognised the human rights to water and sanitation. Over the past decade, close to half of developing countries have recognised these crucial rights in their constitutions, and some progress has been made in access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). But 785 million people still don’t have clean water close to home and 2 billion don’t have a decent toilet of their own. The situation is especially dire for individuals and groups facing discrimination and/or living in poverty.

The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation was established in 2008 to examine these crucial issues and to advocate human rights alongside civil society partners, including WaterAid. Léo Heller, the current Special Rapporteur, is compiling good practices in advancing the human rights to water and sanitation for his final report, to which we have contributed. Over the past decade, we’ve developed practical tools and analysis to support countries and communities towards realising the rights to water and sanitation.

Progressively realising human rights and accountability for existing commitments

Governments have an obligation to ensure the progressive realisation of human rights for all. This means putting in place concrete plans and measures to ensure WASH services reach everyone and are sustainable, which includes mobilising resources. This is a huge challenge for many countries, and agencies like us are committed to support system strengthening and empowerment (PDF), to ensure sustainability and encourage communities to claim their rights.

As a member of the Agenda for Change coalition, we work with governments to strengthen the systems, processes and institutions needed to ensure sustainable services are accessible to all. Our work on WASH behaviour change is viewed through this lens. We also bring a specific focus on human rights through a decade of action and learning on embedding and integrating a human rights based approach to WASH, recognising the links between rights to WASH and other human rights – such as health, education and housing – and recognising rights holders as key agents of change.

Many of our programmes include a focus on collective advocacy, to strengthen the ability of communities and rights holders to hold duty bearers to account for their commitments, and to create demand for the fulfilment of the human rights to water and sanitation. For example, as part of our Twenty Towns project in Ethiopia (PDF) we supported customer forums to engage with utilities. Government officials have cited this as a good example of strong engagement between customers and suppliers that helps identify who is being excluded from services. WaterAid also hosts the global civil society network End Water Poverty, which supports people to claim their rights to water and sanitation.

Members of the Customer Forum in discussion, Debre Tabor Water Utility, Debre Tabor, South Gondar, Amhara, Ethiopia.
Members of the Customer Forum in discussion at the Debre Tabor Water Utility, Debre Tabor, Amhara, Ethiopia, in 2018 as part of the Twenty Towns project.
Image: WaterAid/ Will Crowne

Effective government-led WASH services monitoring is required to track progress, and, more importantly, for evidence-based planning, budgeting and service delivery by governments and service providers. A transparent monitoring process, which we have long supported in several countries, can help strengthen accountability mechanisms between service authorities and communities, supported by research on how better data can lead to better decisions.

Through our membership of the Making Rights Real coalition, we support civil society organisations to use human rights principles in discussions with local government officials, to clarify their roles and responsibilities as duty bearers and identify and address the systemic challenges they face in realising the human rights to water and sanitation for all. This promotes government leadership and supports local government champions to find ways forward, often in the face of very limited resources. The Making Rights Real coalition also promotes the practical application of human rights in different contexts, for example in response to COVID-19.

We take a holistic approach to human rights, arguing that fulfilment of one right must not come at the expense of another (for example, fulfilment of the right to sanitation must not remove from that to decent work). Our research and advocacy on sanitation workers has raised the profile of the discrimination, marginalisation and lack of protection these workers face; the coalition we instigated between the World Bank, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) co-published an initial report on the health, safety and dignity of sanitation workers. And WaterAid India is leading a European Commission-funded project on manual scavenging, focused on ending the practice and ensuring protection and employment opportunities for people currently working as manual scavengers, often women and typically those who face discrimination on the basis of work and descent (caste).

As we respond to COVID-19 and plan for the future, it is imperative that we apply the human rights principles – equality and non-discrimination, participation, transparency, accountability and sustainability – to empower and increase the dignity of marginalised and vulnerable communities. We use these principles to guide our response, and they will lead us to more inclusive, more sustainable results, protecting and saving lives now and in the future.

Kaverappa, 54, being lifted out of a pit by Muniraju, 37, in Bangalore, India. They are sanitation workers, emptying a pit latrine. They are not wearing any protective equipment.
Kaverappa being lifted out of a pit latrine by Muniraju in Bangalore, India. Our work with the World Bank, ILO and WHO drew attention to the often dangerous conditions many sanitation workers face.
Image: WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad/ Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samiti

Advancing equality and non-discrimination

Application of the human rights principle of equality and non-discrimination is based on an understanding of the barriers to services that marginalised groups face. Our Equality, non-discrimination and inclusion in WASH toolkit is a compilation of tools to support WASH actors to understand and address these barriers, including an accessibility and safety audit to ensure facilities are accessible and safe for women and persons with disabilities.

At the heart of our rural sanitation programming is the focus on designing programmes and working with governments to ensure sanitation service planning and delivery meet the parameters of equity, reaching everyone and leaving no one behind. Countries are increasingly adopting the key principles of equity, promoting the rights of all citizens to sanitation and including universal access to sanitation in district plans.

Our research in Zambia and Uganda into WASH and disabilities showed that most rural households that included older people and persons with disabilities did not have accessible WASH facilities. One reason for this was lack of information about affordable accessible WASH technologies. To fill this gap and show households and technical staff how to affordably adapt WASH facilities to be accessible, we developed the Compendium of accessible WASH technologies (2014) with WEDC. The compendium has been used widely and in some countries adapted for national guidelines.

Accessible infrastructure is important, but is only part of the solution to making WASH more inclusive for people with disabilities. Partnership with disabled people’s organisations and other specialists is needed to challenge social and attitudinal barriers, as in this example from Cambodia.

Menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is an important aspect of the human rights to water and sanitation. In 2012 we co-authored the Menstrual Hygiene Matters toolkit, which kickstarted a broader global conversation about MHM that has broadened into a holistic understanding of menstrual health. The toolkit covers key aspects of menstrual hygiene in different settings, and has become a core text, providing the foundation for much subsequent MHM work.

One of the programmes we’re most proud of is our Disabling menstrual barriers project, designed by WaterAid Nepal to understand and address the neglected issue of MHM for women and girls with intellectual impairments. The project employed a rights based approach, conducting in depth action research to understand the specific MHM requirements of (1) adolescents and young people with an intellectual impairment and the barriers they face in managing their menstruation hygienically and with dignity; and (2) carers who support them during menstruation.

By developing a range of participatory methods to understand the target groups’ views, the team was able to develop a suitable intervention concept that captured the audience's interest, evoked an emotional response and encouraged adoption of the target behaviours.

Kanchhi and her daughter Meena, studying tools used in the Disabling menstrual barriers project, outside the Banepa Muncipality office, Kavre, Nepal.
Kanchhi and her daughter Meena studying tools used in the Disabling menstrual barriers project, outside the Banepa Muncipality office, Kavre, Nepal.
Image: WaterAid/ Shruti Shrestha

Menstrual health is a key facet of women’s and girls’ rights to water and sanitation – but efforts to achieve gender-transformative WASH services go beyond MHM. Gender is a key piece of our equity and inclusion framework. Reflecting on developments in the decade since this formative piece of work, WaterAid Australia recently developed a 'Women’s empowerment and gender transformation framework', which provides guidance on how to advance WASH projects along a spectrum from inclusive to empowering to transformative for gender relations and women’s rights.

We are rolling out the framework through a process of gender self-assessment exercises at country level with WaterAid staff, to encourage self-reflection on cultural and socially determined norms that influence the way they design and manage WASH interventions. This process also encourages WASH specialists to engage more effectively with gender specialists to help design programmes that have gender equality and women’s empowerment as specific aims, and for advocacy towards joint action on WASH and women’s rights.

In Timor-Leste we have tackled deep-rooted gender norms at community level through a prioritised focus over ten years on inequality and through development of a rural WASH gender manual (PDF). In rural Timor-Leste, socially prescribed norms reinforce a gendered division of household labour, resulting in women doing significantly more unpaid WASH work than men.

In a 2019 qualitative review of our approach, led by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney (ISF-UTS), communities reported positive changes such as men and women being more willing to share household tasks and work better together; women having more status and being more involved in household-level decision making; and men doing more water collection and household hygiene work. The approach has been endorsed by Government and taken up by other WASH actors in Timor-Leste.

We have also played a leading role in developing practical guidance for female-friendly community and public toilets. This has built on our role as a lead collaborator in the research and documentation that resulted in Violence, gender and WASH: a practitioner’s toolkit, developed in response to the relationship between lack of access to appropriate WASH and increased vulnerabilities to violence of varying forms.

Building on this premise and an increased understanding of the importance of safety, privacy and accessibility for women, we worked with WSUP and UNICEF to develop a guide to female-friendly public and community toilets for decision makers. Its framework has already been applied in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Tanzania, including through incorporation into national guidelines in India.

The 'Women’s empowerment and gender transformation framework' also recognises that gender is non-binary. In collaboration with several other organisations, we published the first paper on Transgender-inclusive sanitation: insights from South Asia. The research, co-creation and publication of this paper has helped to identify the sanitation issues of transgender people and bring this taboo topic more openly into discussions about ensuring WASH solutions reach everyone. We have taken this work forward through programmes and advocacy in Chhattisgarh, India.

What next? Infusing the Decade of Action for the SDGs with human rights

Our positioning has enabled us to articulate guidelines, build an evidence base and influence decision makers to scale up policy and programming solutions that advance rights, especially of persons with disabilities and of women and girls. This ten-year journey has laid a foundation on which broader and more in-depth action can be built.

We know that WaterAid alone can achieve nothing – collaboration with other organisations has been been core to the success of every example cited here, and will continue to be essential as we work together for the realisation of human rights to water and sanitation.

The UN has defined the period from this year through 2030 as the Decade of Action for the SDGs. 2020 also marks the second decade of the human rights to water and sanitation, and the introduction of a new Special Rapporteur as Léo Heller’s mandate concludes. This confluence of factors, and our advocacy within it, should guide a serious increase in efforts to achieve the SDGs, with SDG 6 on water and sanitation at their core.

Since its inception, the international human rights framework has influenced how governments perceive and respond to the rights of their people to fundamental services including WASH, and provides an important hook for accountability to guarantee and advance these rights. At WaterAid, we’ll continue to contribute to implementation and action around these global norms, as we work to ensure the rights of everyone, everywhere to water and sanitation are met.

Louisa Gosling is Senior WASH Manager for Accountability and Rights – follow her on Twitter at @LouisaGosling1. Katie Tobin is Advocacy Advisor – follow her on Twitter at @travelinKT.