Turning Water Rights Into Reality

Collecting Water in Bangladesh (c) John Sauer

Last month the UN General Assembly declared access to water and sanitation a human right.

This might seem strange if you live in the US as you are accustomed to having instantaneous access to safe drinking water and the convenient, immediate disposal of your poop. Most people in developed countries take the turn of the tap and flush of the toilet for granted because sewers were built and drinking water has been treated for the last 100 years. These advances undergirded the US public health system, as was reported in the New York Times in 1901.

However billions of people around the world still live without these necessities and 4,500 children die each day because of it. The UN press release states:

...the resolution expresses deep concern that an estimated 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and a total of more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. Studies also indicate about 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year and 443 million school days are lost because of water- and sanitation-related diseases.

The fact is we, in the US, see water and sanitation--toilets, taps and pipes--very differently from the rest of the world. For those in the developing world fortunate enough to have access at all, hand-pumped wells and latrines are still the norm. Imagine the US in 1890, and you'll have a better understanding of how the rest of the world lives in 2010. In 1890, just before water and sanitation infrastructure was built, the average life expectancy in the US was 46; this number mirrors the life expectancy for poorer nations today.

Once you are seeing the world though this lens you can start to understand why the UN declared water and sanitation a human right.

But the bigger issue is whether or not making water and sanitation a human right will actually help improve the living standards for people around the world. "Rights and responsibilities, not rights in a vacuum," is how Ned Breslin from Water For People put it. In his blog, Mr. Breslin, describes how a municipality in Bolivia has launched their own plan to make sure every family has access to water and sanitation. "They are not sitting on their hands and waiting for someone to give them their water rights, but taking responsibility - together - to solve their challenges," says Mr. Breslin.

I think you would be hard pressed to find many people who have ever disagreed that their neighbors across the street or across the world should have access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

What the UN General Assembly member states need to do is to put the full power of the UN and their respective governments behind making water and sanitation not only a right, but to make access to safe, affordable and sustainable WASH a reality with a financed, concerted and coordinated effort.

In fact the UN could quickly translate words into action by fully supporting Sanitation and Water for All (SWA), a new partnership addressing critical barriers through national planning, investing, and accountability frameworks to achieve universal and sustainable sanitation and drinking water.

The example of what the UN has done for tackling malaria is a good case study for what could be done for WASH. In 2008 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named Ray Chambers, philanthropist and humanitarian, as Special Envoy for Malaria and announced a commitment of universal access to malaria prevention tools by the end of 2010. As Special Envoy, Mr. Chambers has spanned the globe drumming up support among African governments, donor nations, corporations and foundations to expand action and programs. The malaria push resulted in nearly $2 billion in donor funding for malaria in 2009 and incredible progress toward reducing malaria deaths.

Pressuring the Secretary General to name a UN Special Envoy for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) at the upcoming Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Summit in September in New York could help grow the SWA partnership quickly and mobilize critical financing for WASH around the world.

The General Assembly has taken a relevant step by requiring an Independent Expert, Catarina de Albuquerque, to submit an annual report that makes recommendations on how to improve access to WASH. But words on paper don't supply a child with a glass of safe water or a family with a toilet. A Special Envoy--a hands on advocate--will help translate words into resources to solve the WASH crisis.

Passing the UN resolution has also resulted in a lot of talk about why countries like the US and Canada abstained from voting on the right to water and sanitation. It seems from reading the explanations that reasons for abstaining were mostly about process vs. substance of the resolution. Honestly not really as big of a deal as many are making it out to be.

For all the criticism the US is getting for abstaining, it's worth noting that it has a law, The Senator Paul Simon Water For the Poor Act of 2005, which makes water and sanitation for countries, locales, and people with the greatest need a priority of US foreign assistance. It's not just words either. In 2009 the US government spent $315 million on WASH programs in poorer countries via this law. Sure the US can and needs to do more. In addition to increasing spending on WASH, they can do more by taking a leading role at the UN to shepherd WASH further along.

Developing countries need to prioritize water as the keystone to development, just as the US did at the turn of the 20th century. As President Mikhail Gorbachev said in his recent op-ed:

Recognizing water as a human right is a critical step, but it is not an instant "silver bullet" solution. This right must be enshrined in national laws, and upholding it must be a top priority.

Failures to provide water and sanitation are failures of governance. Recognizing that water is a human right is not merely a conceptual point; it is about getting the job done and actually making clean water widely available. We must clarify the obligation of governments to finance and carry out projects that bring these services to those who need them most.