Water and sanitation a human right: UN

UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations General Assembly has declared access to clean water and sanitation a ‘human right’ – a move which could help bring such basic necessities to more people.

On Wednesday, the 192-member world body adopted the resolution on the back of deep concerns that some 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation.

The resolution calls the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation ‘a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights’.

This could put greater pressure on governments and other organisations to put more effort into providing these basic needs, either in their own countries or in poorer nations.

Indeed, the resolution calls on UN member states and international organisations to provide funding, technology and other resources to help poorer countries ‘scale up’ efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all people.

But a hitch remains in the conclusion of more than 15 years of contentious debate on the issue.

While the resolution – which is non-binding – was approved by a vote of 122-0, 41 countries abstained, including the United States and many Western nations such as Britain, Canada and Australia.

Some European nations backed the re-solution, including Belgium, Italy, Germany, Spain and Norway.

Observers believe that the countries which abstained – mostly developed ones – had done so because of concerns of what obligations the resolution might hold them to.

Canada’s leading water activist Maude Barlow, a former senior adviser to the UN General Assembly on the water issue, said some wealthy countries abstained out of fear ‘that they are going to be asked to pay the price tag’ or that the re-solution would give ‘tools to their own people to use against them’.

Expressing disappointment with her own country’s abstention, she noted that Canada’s conservative government wants the right to sell water.

‘They know that if they say it is a human right, it will be a contradiction to want to turn it into a commodity,’ she said.

Other abstaining countries argued that the resolution came too early.

They pointed out that an independent expert, Portuguese lawyer Catarina de Albuquerque, was due to report to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council next year on countries’ obligations related to water and sanitation, and accused sponsors of the resolution of seeking to pre-empt her findings.

US delegate John Sammis said the resolution ‘falls far short of enjoying the unanimous support of member states and may even undermine the work under way in Geneva’.

British delegate Nicola Freedman said that London ‘does not believe that there exists at present sufficient legal basis under international law to either declare or recognise water or sanitation as free- standing human rights’.

Such concerns have for a long time stymied attempts to recognise access to clean water and sanitation as a human right.

While some countries fear that enshrining a universal right to water could force them to share their water resources with other countries, others worry about the impact on their economy.

Some are also divided on what responsibilities such a right would place on governments.

But the representative of Bolivia – who sponsored the latest resolution – pointed out that many rights have been recognised, including the rights to health, life and education.

Contaminated water, noted its permanent representative to the UN Pablo Solon, causes more than 3.5 million deaths every year – more than any war.

One in eight people worldwide are also estimated to lack potable water.

The latest resolution by the UN comes amid ongoing efforts to meet its Millen-nium Development Goals, a series of targets for reducing social and economic ills, all by 2015.

They include goals to halve the proportion of people who cannot reach or afford safe drinking water, and the number who do not have basic sanitation.



884 million
people lack access to safe drinking water

2.6 billion
lack access to basic sanitation

3.5 million
die every year as a result of unsafe water and sanitation, many of them small children

1.5 million
children under the age of five die each year from water and sanitation-related diseases

443 million
schooldays are lost each year as a result of these diseases


I used to be a callous individual or so I would like to believe. Since when then have I been affected by such news?

It also occurs to me that perhaps Apple, the megalithic company, could have done some and more by contributing a penny from every sale of its iPhone to getting fresh water for the people in third-world countries. This I thought as our country last night, was swarmed by iPhone fever, of people queuing up overnight, lining up, all for just an iPhone 4.

So it occurs, couldn’t we have mobilised this number of people to do something for the statistics mentioned above?


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