Press Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque Mission to Thailand
8 February 2013
“Water is life. It is important to have water to drink and consume because life is here. If there is water, we can survive. If there is no water, we cannot.”
H.M. King Bhumibol (1986)
From 1 to 8 February 2013, I have undertaken an official visit to Thailand at the invitation of the Government. Its objective was to examine the country’s progress and remaining challenges to ensure the full realization of the human rights to water and sanitation. I wish to first thank the Government for the cooperation and hospitality extended during the preparation and throughout this mission.
I had the opportunity to meet with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Natural Resources and Environment, Justice and Public Health and the local government of Chiang Mai. I also met with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, Provincial Waterworks Authority (Headquarters and Region 9), and Metropolitan Waterworks Authority and Royal Project Foundation. I was also given an opportunity to meet with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand and civil society organizations and visit several communities in Bangkok and Chiang Mai and talk to people. I wish to take this opportunity to thank all those who took the time to meet with me and help me better understand the situation of access to water and sanitation in Thailand for their support and cooperation. Without them this mission would not have been possible.
I wish to commend the enormous efforts and achievements that the Government of Thailand has made in the last decades to ensure access to water and sanitation. At the same time, I would like to strongly encourage the Government to revisit the situation of water and sanitation from the human rights point of view and tackle remaining challenges, in particular regarding water quality, safe management, disposal and treatment of wastewater and waste or sewage in a septic tank; and the situation of those groups of people who have been left out from the improvements in access to water and sanitation.
- Legal and institutional framework
The Government of Thailand has ratified relevant international human rights instruments and it has legal obligations to take concrete and deliberate steps to ensure the progressive realization of the human rights to water and sanitation. Water and sanitation are human rights. Human rights are for all. This means that every individual is entitled to access to drinking water and adequate sanitation that are accessible, available, affordable, acceptable and safe in all spheres in people’s lives. The realization of these rights also requires ensuring access to adequate and affordable hygiene practices, including hand washing and menstrual hygiene management with human privacy and dignity. Effective measures have to be taken in order to ensure an adequate disposal and treatment of human waste, including of waste water.
At the domestic level Thailand does not yet have a comprehensive water law, but a Draft Water Act has been under discussion since 1992. The Act indicates that human consumption of water should be given importance, which is not sufficient to clearly establish its prioritization over other water uses. I urge the Government to integrate the human right to water into the Act, so that the normative content of this human right including quality, availability, accessibility and affordability are enshrined therein, and equality and non-discrimination in access to water fully integrated. In this context, the involvement of the Ministry of Justice and of the National Human Rights Commission in the stakeholders’ consultations would be a welcome initiative. Sanitation is regulated mainly by the 1992 Public Health Act and the National Environmental Quality Act among others.
In Thailand, state enterprises - the Metropolitan Waterworks Authority and the Provincial Waterworks Authority- are responsible to deliver water. Their waterworks cover a little over 20 per cent of the households located mainly in urban areas. This means that the rest of the population falls under the responsibility of local authorities. Furthermore, there are multiple public entities with competences in the area of water and sanitation: the Ministry of Public Health sets a basic minimum water quality standard and carries out some sampling of tap water, rainwater and bottled water. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment monitors some of the groundwater and surface water sources. The local government authorities are responsible for collection and treatment of the content of septic tanks, and the Ministry of Public Health is currently developing a Ministerial regulation on standards for septic tanks. Treatment of sewage and wastewater is separately regulated by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and implemented by local authorities. The Ministries of Industry and Finance also have competences in this domain.
- Situation of the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation in Thailand
According to global monitoring of the situation of access to water and sanitation in the country, in 2010 Thailand achieved 96 % of improved drinking water sources coverage and 96% of improved sanitation coverage. While access to drinking water in the Central provinces was above 98%, in the South provinces it is almost 20 percent lower. These figures, however, do not portray an accurate picture of the real situation that I saw in the country, because the current global monitoring does not measure quality, quantity or price of access to water and sanitation. I also learned that domestic monitoring excludes stateless people, undocumented migrant workers – including sex workers - and those in informal settlements. According to the information I received, several million people are thus left out of the statistics. I would like to remind the Thai Government that every individual, regardless of nationality, language or ethnicity, is entitled to the human rights to water and sanitation, and their legal status cannot exempt the State from its obligations to ensure access to water and sanitation.
In Thailand, as a result of the Government’s efforts on rural sanitation and public health, the number of deaths caused by diarrhea has decreased significantly since the late 1990s. Surprisingly, however, the number of diarrhea cases has witnessed an opposite trend and has increased by 31 per cent from 2000 to 2009 according to the Ministry of Public Health (from 1544 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in 2000 to 2023 cases in 2009). This may be due to unsafe water, inappropriate management of human faeces and a lack of hygiene practices - I will explain more on these later.
- Invisibility of people caught in a protection gap
Ladies and Gentlemen,
What struck me most during my mission was the contrast in access to safe drinking water and sanitation between modern cities under rapid development and left-behind areas such as informal settlements, hill tribes and migrant workers’ camps. Simply because of their personal status, they seem to be caught in a protection gap caused by the current structure of water and sanitation supply covering only the registered population. In one of the hill tribes near the border with Myanmar, for instance, stateless people and people without Thai nationality were not even counted under the national census survey. In their village, women fetch water from three reservoirs and need to queue for 3 hours during the dry season because there is not enough water. Some people still go to the forest to defecate in the open, while some others dig big holes where they do their needs. Schools also run out of water during the dry season, and a teacher told us that the toilets would be kept cleaner if they had enough water.
I visited a migrant construction workers’ camp in Chiang Mai. Even though 300 people lived there, it had only 10 toilets, which were not sex segregated, as well as one open bathing point shared by all the workers, including 70 women and 40 children. This situation contravenes the normative content of the rights to water and sanitation - as it fails to ensure privacy and dignity. When I asked a woman how she bathes in the open point especially during menstruation, she said to me “I just shut my eyes and wash myself as quickly as possible, so that it’s done”. When I asked the women what their dreams were, so as to be able to live a better life, they said that they want segregated toilets and a bathing space for their privacy. While talking with this group of women I was surprised to learn that while menstruating, women need to spend 10% of their daily wage on sanitary napkins. Furthermore these families have to endure additional expenses, since they are forced to buy purified water, as the water they are provided with by the employee is not safe. It is the employer's responsibility, from a human rights perspective, to respect human rights. The State authorities have an obligation to monitor compliance and punish those responsible for human rights violations.
During my mission I also visited an informal settlement in the outskirts of Bangkok where the people – after struggling in the past 10 years – finally managed to get connected, as a group, to the Public Water Authority. However I was surprised to learn that being connected as a group of almost 30 households meant that the tariff for industries applied to them, meaning they pay 2.5 times more per cubic meter than an individual private household. This situation makes the price of water unaffordable to this group of people who live in a very precarious economic situation.
I went also to the Central Women Correctional Institution in Bangkok in order to assess the way in which the inmates enjoyed their human rights to water and sanitation. I regret the fact that private interviews with the inmates could not be arranged by the authorities and that I could not visit all sectors of the prison. Although I have received information from the Government regarding the conditions of detention as well as from non-governmental organisations, in order for me to be able to undertake an impartial assessment of the situation, it is indispensable to be able to discuss in privacy with inmates. It was evident though that the prison is clearly overcrowded, and also that access to showers and toilets does not comply with human rights requirements of respect for privacy and dignity.
I would like to remind the Government of Thailand that every individual, regardless of national origin, race, language and status, is equally entitled to the human rights to water and sanitation. People’s status cannot be used as a pretext to deny them access to water and sanitation. I would also like to recall that the experience with seeking to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) taught us that “trickle down” effects cannot be counted upon in development. This means that without specific, direct and targeted measures to address the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups of people, development may never reach them. Hence, instead of mainly focusing on the low hanging fruits, I call on the Government to make an additional effort and ensure access to the human right to water for all, while particularly targeting the above referred groups.
- Water Quality
As I already mentioned, quality is a fundamental content of the human right to water. This means that drinking water should not put human health in danger. In Thailand this requirement is partially met, even though a large proportion of the country's population has no assurances regarding the quality of the water consumed.
I warmly welcome the fact that Thailand is not satisfied with the targets set under the MDG for water - which does not cover water quality - and sets the bar higher by aiming at water quality for 80 per cent of the people living in urban areas and 50 per cent of the people living in rural areas by 2015. According to estimates based on limited sampling by the Ministry of Public Health, the current rate of access to safe water both in rural and urban areas is roughly half of the target. I sincerely hope that the Government will not only manage to meet them, but also that after 2015 it continues to make constant progress to ensure access to safe drinking water and sanitation for all. Having been a leader in advocating for the importance of water quality in the framework of the global development agenda, I call on the Government of Thailand, who is also a lead member of the Friends of Water Group in New York, to promote the inclusion of quality, as well as other criteria, into the post-2015 water and sanitation global development agenda.
What I have found is that Thai people do not trust tap water. This might be one reason why almost 30 per cent of the population rely on bottled water as their main drinking water. Information of water quality is not easily available either. The clients of the Metropolitan Water Authority in Bangkok and those of the Provincial Water Authorities in other cities benefit from water provision that meets with quality requirements at least at the water plant level. There are more uncertainties regarding the quality of the water at the taps - sometimes household pipes are old, households illegally install water pumps or boosters connected to the water pipes and sometimes water filters are not adequately maintained. These circumstances lead to possible interferences with water quality standards. I refer to 'possible', since no State entity has a mandate for monitoring quality inside the household.
According to official data only 40% of municipal water and 20% of water provided by sub-district authorities are safe. Furthermore, some people resort to surface water sources or to groundwater sources whose quality is not systematically and periodically controlled. According to official data, the number of surface water sources with very good or medium quality is decreasing, while the number of surface water sources with deteriorating quality is on the raise. I am deeply concerned that water pollution is being increasingly exacerbated by faecal coli form, but also by large scale industrial, mining and agricultural projects which have had a severe impact on the environment in general, and on water sources, including drinking water sources in particular. Many civil society organisations and journalists briefed me on several recent cases of severe pollution by industrial or mining activities, which caused deaths, blindness and serious sicknesses. I was surprised to learn that the review of environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies is limited to a brief desk review by the line Ministries, that there is no prior examination of water bodies and hence no baseline data on the water quality before the license is granted, that the licensing ministry itself is the one responsible for monitoring compliance with environmental standards and also that the Ministry of Environment intervenes only after a problem is detected. It is essential that Thailand creates a fully independent Environment or Water and Sanitation Regulator who should be given strong responsibilities to monitor the behaviour of companies, industries and agricultural sector with environmental protection standards, as well as to control water quality. I will expand on this later.
The progress Thailand made in relation to access to sanitation, especially rural basic sanitation, over the last 50 years is impressive. Whereas its coverage rate was below one per cent in 1960, it rapidly raised to near universal coverage of the registered population by 1999. While the government's objective was to reach a high coverage rate, the challenge now is to ensure quality, as well as a safe disposal and treatment of the human waste - which are essential measures to realize the right to sanitation. I am particularly concerned with the issues of deficient sludge collection and disposal, as well as of lack of wastewater treatment - circumstances that also explain the increasing rate of diarrhoea morbidity.
In Thailand, out of the 1.5 million cubic meters of community wastewater produced daily, only 21 per cent are treated. In the city of Bangkok, the Waste Water Authority only treats 40 per cent of the wastewater, dumping the remaining 60 per cent directly into the canals with only initial treatment. A high percentage of households in Bangkok still rely on septic tanks. The high population density in the capital city, the high water table and septic tanks with open bottoms, might lead to water contamination. Furthermore, both in Bangkok and in other areas of the country, licensed vacuum trucks are supposed to collect the sludge or septage contained in septic tanks and to dispose the collected sludge at designated places for adequate treatment. However, I was informed that there is very poor control of the trucks by the competent local governments, that the majority of trucks operate freely without license and that often they simply dump collected sludge in the nature. These illegal private vacuum trucks often charge people with prices that are not affordable to low income families, but since they are needed especially during the time of floods, people are led to hire them.
On a more positive note, I would like to acknowledge the significant progress made in terms of access to public toilets. I used one of the public Happy Toilets and was very positively impressed by its level of cleanliness. Whereas the rate of access of clean public toilets in 2006 was of 9%, it now is already above 62% - a sign that when there is political will and a vision, immense progress is achieved in the country.
One of the issues repeatedly drawn to my attention during my visit to Thailand was the disconnect between the laws, regulations and by-laws and their actual implementation. The lack of appropriate and independent monitoring means that the water and sanitation service providers are to a large extent unaccountable. Even if, for example, the state owned companies have to comply with some key performance indicators, these do not fully ensure independent monitoring and compliance with human rights.
I call upon the Government of Thailand to establish strong accountability mechanisms to ensure full compliance by all – including the private sector – with the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. Regulation in the water and sanitation sectors is also fundamental. Hence I call on the establishment of an independent regulator, which undertakes independent monitoring, ensures genuine public participation and imposes penalties for non-compliance.
In addition, I recommend that the supervisory role of the central Government is strengthened. The decentralization implemented in Thailand gives the authority and responsibility for providing water and sanitation thoroughly to the local authorities. Even in this decentralized structure, the central government also remains obliged to ensure people’s human rights to water and sanitation and to guide and monitor the way in which local authorities are implementing the legal framework in the area of water and sanitation.
Sound hygiene and sanitation practices demand a mind shift from the people – which will only be achieved with intense, constant and universal awareness raising and education. Hence, I would also like to encourage the Government to place emphasis on education and awareness-raising of hygienic practice to address water-borne diseases as well as contamination of water sources. Additional resources should also be allocated to the competent authorities including the Ministry of Public Health, to enable them to undertake these crucial tasks.
In conclusion, the human rights to water and sanitation require a progressive realization, not an immediate full realization. I am confident that the Government, which has achieved such impressive progress particularly in difficult rural sanitation, is competent to continue its efforts towards the full realization of the human rights to water and sanitation.
Catarina de Albuquerque is the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. She was appointed by the Human Rights Council in 2008. Ms. de Albuquerque is a Professor at the Law Faculties of the Universities of Braga, Coimbra and of the American University’s Washington College of Law. She is a senior legal advisor at the Prosecutor General’s Office in Portugal.