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Who’s watching the implementation of the Human Right to Water?

Who IS watching the implementation of the human right to water? It’s all up to the same national leaders who are responsible for implementing the right. So the referee is the same as the player. We need independent (not captive) regulators, healthy and active human rights institutions, and courts that are progressive on socio-economic rights to act as watchdogs. Oh my, this is far from the reality in most countries.

There is one person whose job is to “watch”: the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque. Although she is seconded to the UN from her university and has no staff, she remains energetic and committed in her pursuit of the question: Is the human right to water being implemented and how well is it being implemented? She goes on country missions and receives and responds to complaints about the violation of the human right to water.

Catarina launched a book at the World Water Forum entitled On the Right Track: Good practices in realising the rights to water and sanitation. It is based on three years of stakeholder consultation, identifying 180 good practices through 128 interviews and 9 country missions. Examples of good practice are provided in four areas: legal/ institutional frameworks; financing; implementation of projects; and monitoring/ governance. Still she recognises that the “human right to water makes a difference, but alone it doesn’t provide services. It acts as a solid framework for stakeholders to plan and provide in the future”.

Most recently, on 5 June, the World Bank sponsored a “webinar” that featured around 70 participants from around the world. It was difficult to ascertain affiliations but UN agencies, AquaFed, and NGOs were represented. Catarina spoke to six questions that were formulated in advance through a participatory process and she responded to the further questions sparked by her talk. A few interesting points that she made included:

  1. Affordable water means that people are “not forced to make impossible choices”, eg water versus medication. Water is not free, but there are “reasonable prices”.
  2. Humans have duties not to harm other people’s rights (such as upstream/ downstream issues).
  3. The obligation is for progressive realisation using the maximum available resources (difficult to implement because competes with other rights) .
  4. Retrogression without justification is in principle a violation of the HRTW. Training is needed to sustain progress.

Although the level of questions from participants showed implementational suss, many questions reflected naïvite in terms of political realities. The webinar was intended to strengthen participants understanding of this issue, but could any water practitioner really believe that implementing the right to water mainly requires a “how to” guide?

While such a guide may be useful establishing some common lessons in implementation (and Catarina has undertaken to develop a guide), one of the main limitations to implementing the HRTW appears to be one of values and related political will. When asked about how to gain political will, she replied that we should raise the awareness of politicians, so they recognise water as a smart investment that will save money and lives.
Implementing the human right to water requires prioritising the unserved, committing to using resources on people’s water and sanitation, and seeking to understand the barriers to people obtaining water and sanitation and making the system work. This often seems in stark contrast to governments that speak the “right” language but do not alter their approach and show little interest in moving past what they are already doing. One official stated: “The human right to water is established, so we do not discuss it anymore.”
To make the human right to water a reality, it must be discussed. This is precisely the standoff regarding water and sanitation provision to informal settlements: Catarina said that governments often point to squatter of informal settlements as illegal, and then use this as a justification to treat people living in these areas as invisible. This is, of course, unacceptable.

So we must also scrutinise claims of success. There are problems with data and context, among other things. For example, the South African government claims to have met the water Millenium Development Goal, however its data reflects infrastructure that has been installed over the years, not real access—systems that are functional or water that people can afford. Another example is that Community Led Total Sanitation may be an innovative and effective approach in countries with no or little funding for sanitation; however using it in countries with adequate funds for sanitation is arguably an abuse of the human right to water and sanitation because its shifts responsibility squarely onto poor people. Moreover it is likely that the government will not improve the level of service but treat those people as served.

Perhaps the key question for all of us is: Where political will and adequate finance exist, how does the public sector develop its capacity so that it is able to take responsibility for delivery? While public-public partnerships would be ideal, finding successful public utilities in many African countries is no easy feat. So it is common for municipalities that lack capacity to draw in the private sector—and by definition they lack capacity to ensure inclusion of equity issues in the contract and to regulate private sector operations.

It is now a commonplace claim to be “agnostic” about the form of service provision, as Catarina and many others do. But how can one claim to be a-political via a vis an issue loaded with questions of power? It is essential to acknowledge the issues and trade-offs in the public-private decision—of course the nature of the service provider makes a difference! Anyone who doesn’t have a position on these issues and trade-offs is either sleeping or trying to please everyone.

In the meantime, people on the ground are living these issues and together we are ensuring that we are watching the implementation of the human right to water and sanitation— and making our voices heard.