Water, a Human Right

Ricardo Santos for Portuguese Soul June 2020

Water is at the heart of sustainable development and is part of the primary commitment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which advocates universal and equitable access to drinking water and sanitation by 2030.

According to the United Nations, “water is fundamental to socio-economic development, the production of energy and food, the construction of healthy ecosystems and for the survival of the human race. Water is also essential to tackling climate change, serving as a crucial link between society and the environment”. António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, absolutely believes that “water is a human right. No one should be denied access to it”.

The scarcity of this universal resource is expected to increase until 2050 due to the demand from the industrial and domestic sectors of emerging economies and the increase in the world population. According to the United Nations, there is “a growing need to balance the demand for water resources with the needs of communities. Water cannot be seen in isolation from sanitation. Together, they are vital for reducing the global burden of disease and improving the health, education and economic productivity of populations”.

Currently, more than 30 United Nations organisations are implementing sustainable water and sanitation management programmes. One such institution created in 2003, UN-Water, seeks to coordinate the efforts of all UN organisations with the challenges facing water.

The challenges ahead

While Goal 6 of the UN’s Agenda 2030 is clear, the UN is aware that “three out of ten people have no access to drinking water, more than 2 billion live in countries with a high level of water stress and that around 4 billion people are suffering from a severe shortage of drinking water for at least one month of the year”. In addition, almost half of the people who drink water from unprotected sources live in Sub-Saharan Africa and six out of ten people do not have access to safe sanitation services.

Water use has been increasing worldwide by about 1% per year since the 1980s, and the trend will continue. This growth is also driven by a combination of population growth, socio-economic development and the evolution of consumption patterns.

In order to meet this challenge, the UN has said, “better water management is needed and access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation is essential to eradicate poverty and ensure that ‘no one is left behind’ on the road to sustainable development”.

More specifically, the measures range from transforming political agreements into legally-binding rules, ensuring fair distribution of water and sanitation services, enforcing the international labour standards drawn up by its members or establishing mechanisms that can influence the development of international law and incentivise non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to promote active public participation in these matters.

In the words of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, change happens through “encouraging cooperation to face the global water crisis and strengthen our resilience to the effects of climate change in order to guarantee access to water for all, especially the most vulnerable”.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Contaminated water and a lack of basic sanitation are undermining efforts to end extreme poverty and disease in the world’s poorest countries.

Today, more than 2 billion people around the world still do not have access to basic sanitation facilities. Dirty water and unreliable sanitation are, moreover, one of the main causes of child mortality. Studies show that every dollar invested in sanitation has an average return of nine dollars. These benefits have the greatest impact on poor children in disadvantaged communities.

One of the most important recent milestones was the recognition by the UN General Assembly in July 2010 of the human right to water and sanitation. The Assembly recognised the right of all human beings to have access to sufficient water for personal and domestic use (between 50 and 100 litres of water per person per day), in a cost-effective manner (water costs should not exceed 3% of household income), and accessible (the water source should be close to home and the collection time should not exceed 30 minutes).

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets out 17 ambitious challenges expected to be met by the global community. These 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include targets for access to drinking water and sanitation, as well as to tackle inequality and discrimination and many other key goals to “leave no one behind” and “reach the most disadvantaged first”.

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