Water and Human Rights
Written by: Barak Bruerd
In a landmark vote, the UN General Assembly on Thursday declared Water to be a human right, “essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” With nearly 900 million people worldwide without safe drinking water and 2.6 billion without access to basic sanitation, the declaration by the UN seems a no-brainer – especially when they are responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million children each year.
However, the implications of declaring something a basic human right reach far beyond just an idealistic notion. Officially recognizing water and sanitation as a fundamental human right is a legal act with strong ramifications.
“Human rights are protected by internationally guaranteed standards that ensure the fundamental freedoms and dignity of individuals and communities.They include civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. Human rights principally concern the relationship between the individual and the State. Governmental obligations with regard to human rights can broadly be categorized in obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill” (WHO, 2002).
And therein lies the problem. With the acknowledgement that it is a right comes the obligation to act – and in this arena, the principle actors are governments. By guaranteeing safe water to a population, there are overwhelming challenges that are expensive, time consuming, and more often than not, political. To often, governments are unwilling to shoulder this responsibility.
Ultimately, the question is – “how important is this?”. Personally, I tend to put very little reliance on governments and large agencies with large-scale initiatives. All too often they create dependence through top-down, paternalistic programs. And yet if we take an honest assessment of our own lives we come to the inevitable conclusion that we ourselves are highly dependent upon the infrastructure implemented and maintained by our governments. In development work, cooperation and collaboration with local government is an essential component – even at a grassroots level. By gaining buy-in and and long-term commitments from government for supporting essential services, the quality and sustainability of programs like safe water and sanitation are greatly enhanced. The greatest challenge, however has been gaining this buy-in. Though it won’t happen overnight, this resolution combined with ongoing efforts, will help governments to begin to take the necessary steps towards providing for their own people.
There is, however, one overarching attitude in the resolution that is regrettable – it is one that places primary responsibility on rich countries to bring change. This is one of the central themes that plagues international development. The trillions of dollars that have been poured into the developing world over the last three decades attests that money is not the primary barrier to poverty alleviation. Responsible use is. The West can only do so much – ultimately national governments must be willing to take responsibility for their own populations. Water and Sanitation provision is a great start.
Over and over you’ll hear me talk about our part in driving positive solutions. The expectations and demands you place on implementing organizations has a profound effect on how they execute programs. Ask the organizations you support how they garner buy-in and participation from local government and if their strategies incorporate handing off programs to local government or local organizations. Though not always done well, it is among the indicators used to judge the viability of a program.