CWSC Statement on the 10th Anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly Declaration of a Human Right to Water and Sanitation
28 July Tuesday 2020
Ten Years Later: The UN Resolution on the Right to Water and Sanitation
Today is a day to reflect, not celebrate. Ten years ago, the U.N. General Assembly declared a right to water and sanitation. This vote, this act of declaring humankind’s most basic need, took over 60 years to come to fruition. Ten years later, we should not celebrate our successes. Instead, we must focus on how much is left to do.
Too many countries still do not articulate a right to water or a right to sanitation in their constitutions or laws, including the United States. Where these rights are articulated, there is no mechanism to enforce them. Even where rights are articulated and enforcement exists, people still lack access to water because of mismanagement, underfunding, and changes to our climate. In the United States alone, in the grip of a pandemic, we have to beg the government to keep the water flowing for those who can’t afford to pay.
Even before COVID, water was becoming less affordable. Until a few years ago, people in Maryland could lose their homes if they didn’t pay their water bills. Even now, it is unclear how much households are going into debt during the pandemic because these bills, like so many others, can’t be covered. Many governments and utilities have used moratoriums on shutoffs so that people don’t lose their water. For those unable to pay these bills, tariffs and fees and penalties and charges are still being added. When the pandemic is over in the United States, the real reckoning for water and sanitation will begin.
In the last decade, the world watched as water crises have pockmarked U.S. cities. Lead-contaminated water threatened the newest generation of Americans, other cancer-causing pollution grew, and large-scale contamination of waters continued. In Flint, Michigan, children who were exposed to toxic levels of lead are experiencing language, learning or intellectual disorders. More than five years after the crisis began, residents are still drinking bottled water, because how can you trust a system that so completely let you down?
In our work in Africa, we have seen progress, if not accountability. Most countries have made strides in creating systems that can reach many of their citizens-in cities. Aid organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, play a strong role in driving these advances. But while the progress has been mostly linear, city populations are growing at an exponential rate. These migrations, driven by economics, climate, and conflict, are undermining the advances that have been made through concerted efforts. The new pandemic-driven world on the horizon also threatens to divert resources from these projects.
The human right to water and sanitation is a legal concept, above all. By declaring it a universal, inalienable right, the United Nations did not change the world, did not change the laws of the world. Water and sanitation are necessities for survival, and have always been. That we had to declare them a matter of right showed just how much we had neglected their importance in our lives.
For lawyers, the path is clear. Every state and country should make an enforceable commitment to provide water and sanitation to the people in their territory. This does not mean just political promises or policies, but actual financial commitment that people can count on. Second, every government should ensure that lawyers and courts are poised to protect these rights. Lastly, every government should be transparent and honest about how it will protect these rights. Drinking water and basic sanitation are not mere bargaining chips, they are not just international human rights obligations, they are not only constitutional or legal mandates. They are the foundations of human life and human society. If life is truly sacrosanct, then these needs must be met.
In 2010 the U.N. General Assembly recognized a human right to water and sanitation. Congratulations. Now let’s get back to work.