Water as a Human Right

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Human right to water and sanitation

The United Nations General Assembly created Resolution 64/292 in 2010, it acknowledged the intrinsic importance of clean water and access to sanitation for all. In recognising that it was a human right, the UN placed pressure on the nations of the world to adhere to the standards it set out, but the organisation does not have the power to force governments to act.

It is hoped that by raising the issue and championing various initiatives, the international community will be more inclined to listen.

Why Make it a Human Right?

When everyone has a right to the same level of access, water becomes something they are legally entitled to, rather than being a commodity which is sold or provided through charity. The resolution could also act as a catalyst to improve the situation in places where drought is common, ensuring that the gulf between vulnerable and well-off communities is diminished. Also, communities are empowered to speak about their situation and participate in decisions made on their behalf. The United Nations will oversee each of these goals, observing the work of countries, reporting back to the world on their progress and encouraging an atmosphere of accountability.

According to the resolution, there are many reasons why these standards have to be set.

Sufficient
Each person should be confident of a continuous water supply that meets their personal needs, in terms of hygiene and drinking, but also their domestic requirements, in terms of cooking and cleaning. The World Health Organisation has stated that when people have between 50 and 100 litres each day, they are less likely to become ill as their basic needs are being met. However, if people are surviving on 5 litres a day the UN says we can class them as lacking access to a reliable source of fluids. People use on average 2 litres to prepare their meals, before drinking and washing are taken into consideration. This average daily figure rises to 7.5 litres per day for women who are breastfeeding, even if they only take part in gentle physical activities.

Safe
This describes domestic and personal supplies which are free from a range of toxic substances, including harmful chemicals, micro-organisms and radiological waste, each of which could damage human health. The question of what is safe may differ from region to region, but the World Health Organisation has provided guidelines which can help countries produce their own standards. A 2006 UN report into the link between poverty and water shortages, found that almost half of all people living in less developed countries had health problems relating to water and sanitation. The UN state that a lack of safe fluids to drink is the second largest killer of under 18s the world over. Globally, 443 million school days are missed by children suffering from an illness they caught through an unhygienic supply.

Acceptable
This refers to how a supply tastes, the colour it is and how it smells. Also covered under this heading are the facilities on offer, these should be appropriate for the culture of each user and different genders, whilst also offering a degree of privacy. This is essential for a number of reasons. During a 2007 UN study of 5000 Senegalese schools, it was found that facilities were extremely limited and most did not have separate areas for girls and boys. This led to countless problems for girls who did not want to share a tap or a toilet with boys, because these areas were not considered sanitary or private enough. As a consequence of having mixed bathrooms, many girls developed bladder complaints or dehydration and even stayed away from school whilst they were menstruating.

Physically accessible
The refers to sanitation and drinking facilities being close to each household, school, workplace or health centre, or within it. The World Health Organisation says the source should be within 1000 metres of a home, and it should not take more than 30 minutes to collect. According to a 2010 fact sheet drawn up by the UN and the WHO, women in Africa and Asia walk an average of 6 km to a collection point. This adds to the risks already associated with storing fluids over long periods of time, such as infections and mosquitos using the supplies to breed.

Affordable
These facilities where they exist must also be affordable, even for the poorest members of a society. As a rough guide, the UN Development Program suggests people should not be expected to spend more than 5% of their annual income, so they still have enough money for food, travel and other services. In a 2006 report, entitled 'Beyond Scarcity', the United Nations Development Program discovered that relatively speaking, residents of Manila, Nairobi and Jakarta slums paid more for their supply than consumers in New York or London. In Manila, the poorest 20% of people were obliged to pay the equivalent of three months’ income for connection to the utility.

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Is it Mentioned in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The right to drink from a clean source and have adequate sanitation is not mentioned specifically in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was first adopted by the UN in 1948. However, it is indirectly referred to through other rights, such as the right to special care for children and mothers, and the right to adequate living conditions.

Although they did not mention it in the first half of the twentieth century, the UN later recognised that rivers, streams and oceans where hugely important resources. Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the UN until December 2016, commented: "Safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are crucial for poverty reduction...crucial for sustainable development”.

Even now the UN does not claim to have a solution to the issue of universal access to water and sanitation. For many people, especially in developing countries, this remains a long way off. However, by enshrining this basic need as a human right, they can urge governments to work towards making it a reality.

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