The human rights to water and sanitation

All countries agree that water and sanitation are human rights. But where do these human rights come from? And how are they defined?

Where do the human rights to water and sanitation come from?​

Water and sanitation are internationally recognised human rights. This means that every person should have water and sanitation services – even if this is not the case today. Countries have legally recognised these rights and have committed to realising them in international human rights treaties and other international instruments.

International human rights treaties are legally binding agreements between countries. They are part of public international law, which is the law governing the relationship between countries.

Such treaties can have different names. Common terms are “Covenant”, “Convention”, “Protocol”. Countries decide to enter these treaties of their own free will through a process called ratification. A country that has ratified an international treaty is called a “State party”.

Water and sanitation are not explicitly mentioned in international human rights treaties. Instead, they are part of the “human right to an adequate standard of living”. This human right is guaranteed primarily in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 171 countries have ratified this treaty and are therefore obliged by it.

The human right to an adequate standard of living is not only contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In international human rights law, this right is also guaranteed in Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and in Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

The human rights to water and sanitation are also closely linked to other humnan rights, including the right to health, the right to health and fundamental principles such as human dignity. Even if a country is not party to a treaty that guarantees the human right to an adequate standard of living, the human rights to water and sanitation may still be relevant if the country is party to a treaty that guarantees human rights which in turn require water and/or sanitation.

The recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation at the United Nations

All 193 countries in the world agree that water and sanitation are human rights. Every year, countries negotiate a resolution at the UN General Assembly or Human Rights Council. These resolutions are usually passed by consensus, meaning that no country disagrees. While resolutions are not legally binding, they are negotiated and passed by countries and therefore are an expression of their opinion. This expression of opinion can be used in advocacy at the national level. 

Resolutions are particularly important documents in the case of the human rights to water and sanitation, because these rights are not explicitly mentioned in international human rights treaties. It took until 2010 – when the first resolutions on the human rights to water and sanitation were adopted at the UN General Assembly and later the Human Rights Council – for the recognition of the legal interpretation that water and sanitation are indeed part of the human right to an adequate standard of living. Since then, many more resolutions have been passed and there is a clear consensus about this legal interpretation.

This type of legal interpretation is not unusual. Rather, understanding of law changes over time and so does its interpretation. this is especially true for fundamental areas of law, such as international human rights law: The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force in 1976. It would be strange if the unerstanding of law had not changed over the decades!

Another important resolution regarding the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation is the 2030 Development Agenda, which contains the Sustainable Development Goals. The entire Agenda is grounded in human rights, and many of its Goals of course are commitments to the realisation of different human rights – including in Goal 6 on water and sanitation. Moreover, many human rights principles and standards are reflected in the formulation of SDG 6 and its indicators. In the WASH sector, the SDGs are therefore another important instrument in national level advocacy – and can be related to human rights.


Up to 2015, United Nations resolutions refer to a single human right to water and sanitation. Following years of advocacy from the United Nations Special Rapporteur and civil society organisations, water and sanitation were recognised as separate human rights by the United Nations General Assembly in resolution 70/169 of December 2015.

How are the human rights to water and sanitation defined?

Human rights principles underpin not just the human rights to water and sanitation, but all human rights. They serve to identify and address systemic challenges in the realisation of human rights for all.

The human rights principles are:

Non-discrimination and equality are key human rights principles. 

Discrimination is the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups due to skin colour, national or social origin, gender, age, sexual orientation or other grounds. It is legally defined as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction which has the purpose or effect of reducing or negating the recognition, the enjoyment or the exercise of a right on an equal basis with others” (UN doc. A/67/270, para. 29).

Discrimination comes in many forms, often on the basis of colour, national or social origin, gender, age or sexual orientation – to name a few. Discrimination can be ‘direct’ such as when laws, policies or actions unfairly favour one person or group over another, or it can be more hidden and ‘indirect’, such as when laws, policies or actions seem neutral at first sight, but in practice have the effect of excluding certain people.

The aim of human rights law – and therefore the duty of government – is to ensure that everyone can equally enjoy adequate water and sanitation services. Since this is not the case today, governments need to prioritise service improvements for certain areas or for those persons that are left behind or are most likely to face exclusion. Equality therefore does not imply treating everyone equally, but treating everyone in such a way that equality will be reached. This is also known as affirmative action (see UN doc as above).

Access to information and transparency are key to enable the realisation of water and sanitation services for all. Governments should make all information such as plans, policies, standards and budgets publicly accessible. This fosters accountability and is a precondition for participation. This in turn will help governments to understand what is needed to ensure sustainable services in line with human rights.

Transparency and access to information means that governments must not only share information on request, but should actively make information avaiable to people; for example, through broadcasting on the radio, internet and official journals. It is important that the information is shared so that everyone is able to understand it. This may require using different languages and ways of communication suitable for people who are not able to read, for example.

The human rights to water and sanitation can only be realised effectively through full, free and meaningful participation in decision-making processes by people affected by the decisions. Participation ensures better implementation and enhances the effectiveness and sustainability of interventions, offering the possibility of social transformation.

Accountability is the process by which people living under a State’s jurisdiction can ensure that States are meeting their obligations with respect to the human rights to water and sanitation.
Accountability covers two important areas: first, it establishes monitoring and other mechanisms for controlling the different actors responsible for ensuring access to water and sanitation services. This includes the monitoring of service levels and of compliance with standards and targets, as well as monitoring which individuals and groups have access to adequate water
and sanitation services and which do not.
Second, accountability demands that individuals or groups who consider that their human rights have been violated should have access to courts or other independent review mechanisms, in order that their complaints may be heard and resolved. Access to justice can take many forms, from administrative complaints procedures to judicial processes at local, national, regional and
international levels.

Human rights law requires States to take immediate steps towards progressively achieving the full realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation for everyone: once services and facilities have been improved, the positive change must be maintained and slippages and retrogression must be avoided.
Water and sanitation must be provided in a way that respects the environment and ensures a balance of the different dimensions of economic, social and environmental sustainability. Services must be available sustainably for present and for future generations, and the provision of services today should not compromise the ability of future generations to realise their human rights to water and sanitation. Importantly, sufficient expenditure in operation and maintenance of existing services must be ensured.

Standards serve to assess whether services meet human rights requirements. These standards are very similar to those found in technical guidance on WASH services. Ultimately, the human rights standards describe what a ‘good’ service looks like.

The standards are:

Water and sanitation facilities must meet people’s needs now and in the future:
Water supply must be sufficient and continuous for personal and domestic uses (including drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, and personal and household hygiene).
There must be a sufficient number of sanitation facilities to ensure that all of the needs of each person are met. Where facilities are shared, long waiting times should be avoided. In addition, the collection, transport, treatment and disposal (or reuse) of human excreta, and associated hygiene must be ensured.
Facilities to meet hygiene requirements must be available wherever there are toilets and latrines, where water is stored and where food is being prepared and served, particularly for hand-washing, menstrual hygiene management and the management of children’s faeces.
Water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and services must not only be available at home, but in all places where people spend significant amounts of time.

Water and sanitation infrastructure must be located and built in such a way that it is genuinely accessible for everyone, with consideration given to people who face specific barriers, such as children, older persons, persons with disabilities and chronically ill people.
The following aspects are particularly important to consider: Design of facilities, time and distance to collect water or reach sanitaiton facilities, physical security of users.

The quality and safety of water and sanitation services must be ensured to protect the health of users and the general public.
Water must be safe to use for human consumption (drinking and food preparation) and for personal and household hygiene. It must be free from microorganisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to human health.
Sanitation facilities must be safe to use and must effectively prevent human, animal and insect contact with human excreta, to ensure safety and to protect the health of users and the community. Toilets must be regularly cleaned, and provide hygiene facilities for washing hands with soap and water. Women and girls require faciltiies to enable menstrual hygiene management. Ensuring safe sanitation furthe requires hygiene promotion and education, to ensure that people use toilets in a hygienic manner.

People must be able to afford to pay for their water and sanitation services and associated hygiene. This means that the price paid to meet all these needs must not limit people’s capacity to buy other basic goods and services, such as food, housing, health and education, guaranteed by other human rights. While human rights law does not require services to be provided free of charge, States are obliged to provide free services or put adequate subsidy mechanisms in place to ensure that services are affordable for the poor.

The acceptability of water and sanitation services is crucial: People will not use faciltiies if these do not meet the social or cultural standards of the people they are meant to serve. Acceptability is also important to ensure privacy and dignity, which are themselves human rights principles that apply to all human rights. The following aspects are important:
Water must be of an acceptable odour, taste and colour to meet all personal and domestic uses. The water facilitiy itself must be acceptable for the intended use, especially for personal hygiene.
Sanitation facilities will only be acceptable to users if the design, positioning and conditions of use are sensitive to people’s cultures and priorities. Sanitation facilities that are used by more than one household should always be separated by gender and constructed in such a way that they ensure privacy. Toilets for women and girls must have facilities for menstrual hygiene management and for the disposal of menstrual materials.
Particularly with respect to sanitation and associated hygiene, a number of practices exist that are unacceptable from a human rights perspective. These include manual scavenging and the taboos attached to women and girls during menstruation. States must ensure that these practices are eliminated, which will often require a range of measures, including changes to the physical infrastructure, concerted political leadership, awareness raising and legal and policy change.

What do states have to do to realise the human rights to water and sanitation?​

The human rights to water and sanitation are guaranteed in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This treaty and international human rights law more generally contains some specific obligations which States that have ratified the treaty need to follow.

In order to realise the human rights to water and sanitation, States have to do the following:



Progressive realisation and maximum available resources Article 2 (1) of the ICESCR obliges States to progressively realise the human rights guaranteed in ICESCR and that they must use the maxiumum of the resources available to them to do so.

Progressive realisation means that states must move as quickly and effectively as possible towards good water and sanitation services for all. The concept of progressive realisation accepts that services for all is a step-by-step process that takes time, and faces many technical, economic and political constraints. However, progressive realisation it not an excuse for not taking action! It requires increases in the number of people with access, with a view to getting to universal access as fast as possible.

Any slip back – or retrogression in human rights terms – is generally against the object and purposes of the ICESCR treaty. In cases where resources are very limited, such as in times of financial or economic crises, States must prioritise ensuring access to a mimnum level of service to comply with human rights. This will often necessitate specific measures to assist marginalised and disadvantaged individuals and groups.



Extraterritorial obligations require States parties to the relevant agreements to respect the human rights of people in other countries. Water must never be used as an instrument of political or economic pressure, and States must not impose embargoes or similar measures that prevent the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation.

With regard to the obligation to protect, States must prevent third parties, for example, a company based in one State and functioning in another, from violating the human rights to water and sanitation in other countries.

Furthermore, States in a position to do so must assist in the full realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation in other countries. In disaster relief and emergency assistance, economic, social and cultural rights, including the human rights to water and sanitation, should be given due priority in a manner that is consistent with other human rights standards, and that is sustainable and culturally appropriate.

The latest development in this area are the [Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States in the area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights”. These spell out States’ obligations in detail and were adopted by a group of experts in internaitonal law and human rights in 2011.
Last but not least, agreements concerning trade and investment must not limit or hinder a country’s capacity to ensure the full realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation.



While progressive realisation is a step-by-step process, the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights applies immediately and fully to all human rights, including those guaranteed in ICESCR.

The obligation to respect means that States may not prevent people from enjoying their human rights to water and sanitation so that their access to services becomes worse; for example, by selling land with a water source on it that is used by the local population without providing an adequate alternative, thus preventing users from continuing to access the source.

The obligation to protect means that States must prevent others – so called third parties or non-state actors – from interfering with people’s enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation. This can be done by introducing and enforcing rules, for example, to prohibit cutting off water supply for users who are unable to pay.

The obligations to respect and to protect the human rights to water and sanitation support the principle of non-retrogression.

The obligation to fulfil requires States to ensure that the conditions are in place for everyone to enjoy the human rights to water and sanitation. This does not mean that the State has to provide services directly. For example, a mechanism to fulfil the human right to sanitation may be to require that all buildings must have sanitation facilities that meet certain standards. Direct assistance by the State may be required for individuals or groups who cannot access their human rights through other mechanisms.

REFERENCE: The content of this sub-page has been adapted from:
Realising the human rights to water and sanitation: A Handbook by the UN Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque, 2014

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.

Further reading on the human rights to water and sanitation

Many publications on the human rights to water and sanitation require legal training to understand them. Here, we have compiled resources that are understandable to WASH sector practitioners.

You can use Making Rights Real in all kinds of WASH sector programmes and in combination with your own methods or approaches. It consists of materials that introduce human rights concepts to local government officials and a suggested process of engaging them. The process includes complementary support materials such as questionnaires for base-, mid- and end-line assessments.

Subhead if required

While we suggest you always use the MRR materials to engage local government officials, you may want to adapt the process of using the materials to your own needs or engage local government in a different way. The key is that Making Rights Real aims to help you engage local government officials in a constructive, solution focused conversation about challenges they face and inspire them to do better, using human rights. Experience with using Making Rights Real shows that local government have not just shown willingness to address problems, but have taken action.