Defending the human right to water and sanitation at the United Nations

By  Meera Karunananthan and Aine O'Connor

On this day five years ago, the United Nations formally recognized the human right to water and sanitation by passing resolution 64/292. Social movements who campaigned for it saw the human right to water and sanitation as a tool in the fight against a global water crisis produced by abuse of the water commons, inequality and social exclusion.

In this final week of Intergovernmental Negotiations on the ‘Post 2015 Development Agenda’, the NGO Mining Working Group and the Blue Planet Project marked the occasion by making a final push to have UN Member States ensure the human right to water and sanitation is explicitly and fully named in the process outcome document.

Ambassador Kamau of Kenya and Ambassador Donoghue of Ireland are responsible for co-facilitating the Post-2015 Intergovernamental Negotiations with a resultant Outcome Document for the UN Summit to adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The Outcome Document, which includes a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals,  will guide official international development policy for the next 15 years. At a consultation with civil society groups, we reminded the co-facilitators of the 621 organizations who demanded that the human right to water and sanitation be explicitly named in the final text.

Water justice organizations have warned that unless the text is rooted in a human rights-based framework, a water and sanitation goal will pave the way for greater commodification of water and sanitation services and freshwater supplies as the water scarcity crisis deepens.

We were encouraged this week to see drinking water explicitly referenced as a right. We did, however, call for the strengthening of this language by naming the human right to water and sanitation in full. Our call was echoed at the UN this week by Switzerland, Palau, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Mexico, Georgia, Kazakhstan and the ‘Arab Group’ of countries.

Our conversation with the co-facilitators enabled us to challenge an assertion made by one Member State this week regarding the legal basis for the human right to water and sanitation.

We reminded Member States that:

The Post 2015 Development Agenda will determine the shape of international development over the next 15 years. While we continue to have strong concerns and reservations regarding some components of the agenda, ensuring that the goals and targets relating to water and sanitation are rooted in the human rights framework is a vital first step in establishing peoples and local communities as ‘rights holders’ rather than clients or aid recipients. Additionally, it establishes the obligations of States as duty bearers who cannot pass off their obligations to private corporations.

The final text will be released at the end of this week.