Skip to content

UN says inequalities in accessing the rights to water and sanitation should be eliminated

In her Dec. 2015 report assessing progress on implementing the human rights to water and sanitation, Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow highlighted that members of First Nations in Canada are 90 per cent more likely not to have running water and sanitation in their homes than other people in Canada.

First Nations WaterIn Canada, an estimated 20,000 Indigenous people living in First Nations lack access to running water or sanitation. On Dec. 17, the same day the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 70/169 further recognizing the human rights to water and sanitation, CTV reported, “There are 164 water advisories affecting 117 First Nations communities across the country, according to the latest available information from Health Canada and B.C.’s First Nations Health Authority.” A federal government study has also found that out of 532 wastewater systems in First Nations, 72 wastewater systems were at high risk and another 272 at medium risk.

Under resolution 70/169, UN member states have now agreed to:

  • ensure the progressive realization of the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation for all in a non-discriminatory manner while eliminating inequalities in access, including for individuals belonging to groups at risk and to marginalized groups, on the grounds of race, gender, age, disability, ethnicity, culture, religion and national or social origin or on any other grounds with a view to progressively eliminating inequalities based on factors such as rural-urban disparities, residence in a slum, income levels and other relevant considerations


  • give due consideration to the commitments regarding the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation when implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including through the full implementation of Goal 6


  • continuously monitor and regularly analyze the status of the realization of the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation


  • identify patterns of failure to respect, protect or fulfil the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation for all persons without discrimination and to address their structural causes in policy-making and budgeting within a broader framework, while undertaking holistic planning aimed at achieving sustainable universal access, including in instances where the private sector donors and non-governmental organizations are involved in service provision


  • promote both women’s leadership and their full, effective and equal participation in decision-making on water and sanitation management and to ensure that a gender-based approach is adopted in relation to water and sanitation programmes, including measures, inter alia, to reduce the time spent by women and girls in collecting household water, in order to address the negative impact of inadequate water and sanitation services on the access of girls to education and to protect women and girls from being physically threatened or assaulted, including from sexual violence, while collecting household water and when accessing sanitation facilities outside of their home or practicing open defecation


  • progressively eliminate open defecation by adopting policies to increase access to sanitation, including for individuals belonging to vulnerable and marginalized groups


  • approach the sanitation issue in a much broader context, taking into account the need to pursue integrated approaches


  • consult and coordinate with local communities and other stakeholders, including civil society and the private sector, on adequate solutions to ensure sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation


  • provide for effective accountability mechanisms for all water and sanitation service providers to ensure that they respect human rights and do not cause human rights violations or abuses

Over the years the UN has recognized the rights to water and sanitation:

  • In January 2003, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognized in General Comment No. 15 the right of “everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses”

  • In July 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized in resolution 64/292 the human right to water and sanitation

  • In September 2014, the UN Human Rights Council recognized in resolution 27/7 “the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation”

  • In September 2015, UN member states ratified the Sustainable Development Goals agenda in which Goal 6 states, “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all”

The Canadian government is therefore obligated under international law to come up with a plan to fulfill the rights to water and sanitation for Indigenous peoples in Canada.

In June 2006, the federal government established an expert panel on safe drinking water for First Nations. In their November 2006 report, they stated, “The most insistent theme we heard from First Nations was that the core problem was inadequacy of resources: mainly in terms of funding to run water and sewage systems, and in many places in terms of long waiting lists for capital funding.” They highlighted, “The federal government has never provided enough funding to First Nations to ensure that the quantity and quality of their water systems was comparable to that of off-reserve communities.”

An assessment conducted by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada in 2011 estimated that it would cost $4.7 billion over a ten year period to meet the department’s protocols for water and wastewater services for First Nations communities.

In a Dec. 29 CBC Radio interview, Canada’s minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs reaffirmed the federal government’s pledge to end boil water advisories in First Nations within five years (by October 2020). Canada will have to report on its human rights record, notably its progress on the fulfillment of the human rights to water and sanitation, at the United Nations in July 2020.

For more on Safe Water for First Nations, please see our campaign web-page here.