FAQs on the human rights to water and sanitation

No. Human rights demand that water and sanitation services are affordable to everyone, including for people who may not be able to pay very much or anything at all. This is the same for all types of human rights. Consider for example:

  • The right to food: Food is not free, but essential food items are quite commonly subsidised
  • The right to health: Drugs are not free, but are quite commonly subsidised

Consider also discussions about ability to pay & full cost recovery: A balance must be found between affordable payment (tariffs) for services. Costs that cannot be covered from those tariffs must be covered through other means, commonly public funds (taxes).

Human rights don’t favour any one service delivery model over another. They demand that the state sets up a system within which service delivery can take place – by state owned or private service providers.

For any such system, regulation and enforcement is crucial to ensure accountability: To what standards do service providers have to work? Who is responsible for what? Are standards really enforced (against any type of service provider)?

“The private sector” also means many different things: Large private sector service providers are quite rare, but small scale private sector providers are almost always involved in service delivery, especially in rural areas: Drillers, builders, sludge collectors, mechanics, etc.
Another example that shows the importance of regulation and enforcement by the state: Renters. The landlord is usually responsible for building the WASH infrastructure INTO the house. This needs building regulations that need to be checked and enforced. And clear roles and responsibilities if something inside the house breaks down: Is it the responsibility of the tenant or the landlord?

In case of private sector actors violating rights (e.g. extractives, beverage companies): The state must protect people’s human rights from violations by private sector actors. Again through laws, regulations and enforcement. For instance, BEFORE any private sector actor starts anything that might impact people’s ability to enjoy services, the impact should be carefully checked, people should have the ability to participate/be consulted, etc. and if the enjoyment of their rights deteriorates (the aquifer runs dry, sources are polluted), they should have a way to seek redress.

Human rights rarely mean that anything in particular needs to be delivered to rights holders by the government: People produce or go and buy their own food – government does not deliver food to the door.

The role of government is to create a system that ensures that everyone will have sanitation. Think about a system to ensure sanitation from scratch:

  • A house is planned, then built: Building regulations require that a functioning sanitation system is put in place.
  • Sewage mains exist or are built: Regulations state that people have to connect.
  • Septic tanks or similar decentralised collection is used: Regulations specify that emptying needs to happen and how the waste will be treated.
  • People are reluctant to build sanitation solutions in their own households: Encouragement, enforcement and where needed support (incl. financial) should be used so people get sanitation facilities and maintian them. In larger settlements, communal toilet blocks run by private or public entrepreneurs may be needed in the interim.

In all of these examples, government has a crucial role to ensure that step by step, everyone will enjoy their right to sanitation.

No. It means that every single person, no matter who they are, has the same right to have water and sanitation services that fulfil certain standards. That is the aim: a service that fulfils a certain standard for everyone.

As we all know, not everybody is the same: People live in different environments, have different needs, different abilities, etc. So in order to reach equality in the enjoyment of rights, we have to differentiate! Examples:

  • A person with a high income can pay the full service cost – a person with a low income can’t. So how to ensure that everyone can pay?
  • A person without a disability can handle the steps at a water pump – a person with a walking disability will struggle. So how to ensure that everyone can access?
  • At the international level, human rights do not have very sharp teeth. There are international monitoring and complaint mechanisms that review how states are progressing with the implementation of their international human rights obligations and that can issue (public or confidential) recommendations, reports, etc. Examples: [The Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation], [the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights], [the Committee on the Rights of the Child] and others. For states, it is internationally uncomfortable to be criticised by these bodies, but they are not very accessible for individuals who feel they have suffered a violation of their human rights to water and sanitation.
  • International human rights demands that states “translate” their international human rights obligations into their national level systems: By including rights in the constitution and laws and by creating the systems that make sure all the details work. One very important part of this is access to justice or the right to a remedy (accountability in other words): The national system should include complaint mechanisms where things go wrong and these should cover all levels: “small” complaints to the service provider that are solved there directly, but from there, all the way up to the court system.

So: Teeth need to be created at the national level and accountability needs to run throughout the entire system of service provision. If you would like to know more about these aspects, you can refer to the following resources:

  • On the translation of human rights into national legal systems, read the chapter on [legal frameworks] in the Handbook
  • On accountability in case of violations of the human rights to water and sanitaiton, read the chapter on [access to justice] in the Handbook
  • Thematic and country reports by the [UN Special Rapporteur] on the human rights to water and santiation contain guidance on the implementation of human rights
  • [United Nations Committees] also provide guidance on how human rights treaties should be implemented and some are able to receive individual complaints

International human rights law does not demand the impossible. Related to water, sanitation, health, education (all the rights related to services and “development”), states have to do the following based on international human rights law:

  • Move forward step by step, not back (progressive realisation)
  • Using the maximum available budget and other resources that they have (maximum available resources). This includes:
    – A state’s own resources
    – International technical and economic assistance and cooperation
  • To achieve the rights recognised in international human rights law (like water and sanitation)

So by signing up to human rights, a state commits to realising these rights and to do so as fast as possible. Human rights law also gives states a ‘how to’ guide, even if financial and other resources are really limited.

The Making Rights Real approach is a ‘how to’ guide that aims to inspire local government, using human rights. Guidance for states at more central levels of government is contained in the [Handbook] on the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation.

International human rights law sees international technical and economic assistance and cooperation as part of the solution. This goes both ways: A state that has no or very limited resources should seek assistance to realise human rights. A state that has a lot of resources should offer assistance to states who need it.

This then extends to the HOW of development cooperation: How can development partners best support the realisation of human rights. Most commonly, this is referred to as a human rights based approach to development cooperation.
For further information, refer to

  • The recent reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on the humanr rights to water and sanitation on [development cooperation]
  • The [Maastrict Principles] on Extraterritorial Obligations of States in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (especially Principles 32-35). These are not binding international law, but the principles reflect the opinion of a number of high level experts in international human rights law.

The SDGs and international human rights law complement each other. Consider the following:

  • Many of the issues contained in the SDGs are guaranteed under international human rights law: Food, health, education, gender equality, water, sanitation, work, reduced inequalities. These are all the SDGs related to the “social” dimension of sustainable development.
  • The SDGs are a POLITICAL declaration that contains many references to international human rights law, so the SDGs are based on international human rights law. Water and sanitation are even explicitly mentioned as rights in the declaration.
  • Human rights are LEGAL in nature: They are in treaties that states have signed up to and are obliged to follow.

So the idea is: Use the human rights obligations and make the thinking contained in it PRACTICAL, so that the political commitment contained in the SDGs will be achieved.


"Mobilising national and
local government for the human rights to WASH"

Sunday, 25 August | 16.00-17.30pm | Room M6 

You will hear experiences with MRR implementation from Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

We look forward to seeing you there!