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Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the right to access to safe drinking water and sanitation at the 66th Session of the General Assembly

New York, 24 October 2011

Mr. Chairperson [H.E. Mr. Hussein Hannif of Malaysia],
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here today to present my annual report and discuss some of the main challenges and obstacles related to the realisation of the rights to water and sanitation in accordance with the tasks attributed to me by Human Rights Council resolutions 15/9 and 16/2, as well as General Assembly Resolution 64/292. The latter has called on me to report to this Assembly on the “principal challenges related to the realization of the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation”.

We know that there are today 2.6 billion people without access to “improved” sanitation and almost one billion people without access to “improved” water sources. We also know that the MDG target regarding water will be met, whereas the one for sanitation will not. But even meeting the water target will mean that around 700 million persons will not have access to “improved” water sources. And even if the sanitation target were to be met, still 1.7 billion people would lack access.

Furthermore, and to portray an even darker picture of the situation, we know that the indicators used for the MDGs do not adequately capture the real situation. Recent figures released by UNICEF and WHO demonstrate, on the basis of a study done in five countries, that much of the water coming from “improved” water sources does not meet quality standards. The study found that 57% of the water coming from protected wells, and 11% of the tap water provided by utilities, fail to comply with microbiological quality standards. Similarly, the current indicators do not adequately reflect whether water is accessible and affordable, and whether sanitation is safe and excreta are properly disposed of. This tragic scenario shows that much still has to be done in order to ensure that water and sanitation are available, accessible, safe, acceptable and affordable for all without discrimination.

The challenges for the realization of the rights to water and sanitation are huge, and many of them guide my work as Special Rapporteur. I have already addressed some of the specific challenges to the implementation of these rights in some of my previous annual reports, namely to the Human Rights Council. For this report, I decided to focus on the issue of availability of financial resources for the realization of the rights to water and sanitation. Why did I decide to choose this topic? – Because it is a crucial one. Even if, as the Beatles said, some argue that they “don’t care for money, money can’t buy [them] love”, the truth is that delivering services to all, and the realisation of human rights does cost money. And indeed, in my work I am constantly confronted with “lack of resources” being invoked by different stakeholders, particularly of course States, to justify lack of progress in the realisation of these human rights.

Hence, this alleged “lack of resources” is the starting point for my report and I intend to address in this presentation three main questions: 1) Are there sufficient resources to realise the rights to water and sanitation? 2) Are these resources targeted effectively? And 3) Do we actually know how much resources there are?

Resources allocated to the sectors are inadequate

A study by WHO and UNDP estimates that the achievement of universal access to water and sanitation by 2015 implies an annual cost of over 16 billion US$, admitting that this figure represents very probably an underestimate. This seems a huge sum. Yet, put in perspective – it is less than global military spending in eight days and less than what people in rich countries spend on mineral water each year.

The current spending patterns for the water and sanitation sectors demonstrate a total incongruence with the above mentioned figures. In the 2010 Global annual assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water by UN-Water thirty-five out of 37 countries report that financial flows are insufficient even to achieve the MDG target for sanitation, let alone universal access.

Mr President, Excellences,

Do the human rights to water and sanitation require more than that the above mentioned 16 billion US$? – We all know that money does not grow on trees. States have to deal with limited resources, in particular in times of economic crisis, and food, health and education are as essential as water and sanitation. However, what the human rights framework requires is that States progressively realise the rights to water and sanitation. They must move as expeditiously and effectively as possible towards their full realisation. And they must use maximum available resources. This implies an obligation for States to mobilize resources from those living within the country, but also and whenever necessary, from the international community.

What are the sources of financing that States can resort to, in order to finance the sectors? Generally speaking, these are household and user contributions (through tariffs and other charges), local or national taxes and government funding, besides the already-mentioned international aid.
When raising money through user contributions States have to find ways to make sure that the tariffs and other charges are structured in a way that it affordable, particularly for people living in poverty. In that regard, it might be necessary for the State to have a safety net in place for those who cannot afford to pay or who can only afford to pay a minimal fee.

Furthermore, realising the rights to water and sanitation is not only demanded by the human rights framework, but it also makes sense from an economic perspective. Investing in water and sanitation has a crucial impact on the realisation of other human rights, resulting inter alia, in improved health, reduced child mortality, increased productivity of adults and school attendance of children, positive impact on women rights, and reduced environmental degradation. In developed nations, advances in life expectancy and child mortality accompanied economic growth only after governments began making substantial investments in water supply and, more importantly, in sanitation. The costs of not ensuring water and sanitation are even higher in terms of public health and lost work and school days. We know that “an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, and studies have demonstrated that for each dollar invested in water and sanitation, on average there is a return of 8 dollars in costs averted and productivity gained. Furthermore, not all benefits have a monetary value. The dignity gained has a huge impact on human well-being, which cannot be neglected.

Resources are not targeted effectively

Mr President,

While additional resources are needed for the realisation of the rights to water and sanitation, a lot more could be achieved with the resources that are already allocated to the sectors. Presently, money is being spent in the wrong places. What is needed is better targeting of resources – aligned with the human rights framework.

In the report I refer to three basic considerations that should guide the allocation of resources. First, these should be directed, as the first priority, to meet obligations of immediate effect, namely targeting those who still do not have access. Second, States and donors must fully integrate the principle of non-discrimination in their policies and programmes, so as to eliminate disparities in access. When it concerns enjoyment of such a fundamental human right, we cannot allow he who pays the piper to call the tune – the process of targeting particular populations must be based on evidence of who does not have access, not on wealth or privileged access to decision making. Third, resources should contribute to long-term sustainability, hence existing resources must be optimized and the necessary physical and regulatory infrastructure must be put in place. That includes also the necessary human capacity to absorb future additional resources.

I will now share with you six examples of areas where better targeting could and should occur.

First, the majority of resources are currently benefiting the relatively well-off rather than low-income communities that lack even basic access. In some countries, millions of people gained access to improved sanitation over the last decades, yet access among the poorest quintile of the population hardly improved. In other countries, progress benefitted those living in the lowest wealth quintiles, a clear demonstration that interventions and policies can be done differently. Hence, States must change their behaviour in order to meet their obligations of immediate effect related to the rights to water and sanitation in terms of guaranteeing basic access to all people, prioritising the most vulnerable and marginalized individuals and communities.

Looking at international aid, there is no correlation between the amount of aid a particular country receives and the percentage of the population with adequate access to water and sanitation services. At the same time, 62 per cent of all of the sectorial aid goes to developing large systems, while only 16 per cent goes to basic systems. The benefits from such large-scale systems largely go to middle and upper-income households, reinforcing discrimination and exacerbating disparities. Donors should re-assess these allocation decisions and investigate who benefits, in order to ensure that they prioritize the most disadvantaged.

Secondly, expensive technologies do not generally lead to significant improvements in service for all, but tend to improve services for a few. Investing in low-cost, high-efficiency technologies can dramatically reduce the amount of funding required to achieve enjoyment of these rights. States must determine which technology is appropriate and direct their interventions to those without access. Temporary options might be acceptable for a limited period, for example when there is an expectation that the community will be reached by more permanent services in a few years.

Thirdly, insufficient resources are usually allocated to operation and maintenance. As a result, communities that received improved coverage may find their service failing due to inadequate maintenance. For instance, throughout Africa, it is estimated that, at any given moment, between 30 and 40 per cent of hand pumps are not functional. States must invest in these services, as it is vastly more cost effective to invest in operation and maintenance than to rehabilitate, or construct an entirely new system after it has failed.

Fourthly, the long-term success of the realisation of the rights to water and sanitation requires investments in institutional and human capacity, in particular at the local level. Decentralized responsibility for providing water and sanitation services is not effective unless accompanied by financial and technical support to local authorities, based on regulation at the national level. States must improve the efficiency of the process by devoting more resources to building capacity at the local level. Areas to focus on include the capacity to absorb resources and to manage and deliver water and sanitation services. Crucially, States must ensure that resources are spent on those in greatest need.

Fifth, a clear legislative and regulatory framework is needed. States must set clear targets and benchmarks for implementation. They must clarify and harmonize the responsibilities of various actors; set minimum standards for quality, accessibility, affordability; and ensure accountability through monitoring and by creating incentives for compliance.

Finally, States have an obligation to educate communities about the hygienic use of water and sanitation services, and inform them of their rights. Devoting resources to these activities can often translate into greater demand, and better and more sustainable use of services, which can in turn encourage States to do more to ensure access.

Therefore, I call upon States and donors to change where necessary the current patterns regarding resource allocation, and take further steps to better prioritize these six key areas.

The way that resources are used is not measured accurately

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

More adequate funding and better targeting can only be achieved when States accurately measure and track the availability and use of resources. There are some obstacles that must be overcome, inter alia, institutional fragmentation, a lack of transparency, and the absence of mechanisms for monitoring individual contributions.
First, regarding the issue of institutional fragmentation, both horizontally and vertically, coordination among all stakeholders must be ensured. As I emphasized in my most recent thematic report to the Human Rights Council, national planning and a clear allocation of responsibilities are indispensable to realise these rights. Hence States must take their obligation to coordinate the work of actors at all levels seriously, and adopt comprehensive sector-wide policies for water and sanitation. These measures will, inter alia, avoid wasteful duplication of services, and therefore unnecessary costs.

Second, and in relation to transparency, this is closely connected with a lack of detailed budgeting, as frequently national budgets do not adequately account for how, where and by whom expenditures for water and sanitation are made. The result is that States simply do not know how much they spend on water and sanitation. Specific water and sanitation initiatives, such as the UN Water Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) are already taking important steps towards better monitoring of financing for the sectors, and ensuring improved access to information for individuals and institutions.

Finally, and in relation to the absence of mechanisms for monitoring individual and household contributions to the sectors, States must factor in their value; these contributions have a serious impact on affordability. This information is also essential to understand which segments of the population require what kind of assistance in order to ensure their access to water and sanitation.

Improved coordination, greater transparency and improved knowledge about individual contributions will result in a better overall knowledge of the resources that are being directed to the sectors and how they are being utilized, thus supporting improved policy design and implementation.

This Assembly explicitly recognised the right to water and sanitation last year. This was a historic step. Yet, a far greater step will be to make the rights to water and sanitation a reality for all people. Their realisation faces a number of challenges, many of which are associated with financial resources. Ensuring the rights to water and sanitation for all will require considerably more resources, mainly to extend sustainable access to the billions of persons who still do not have it. But more importantly, and specially in a period of economic crisis, it is fundamental to spend the available resources more efficiently and ensure better targeting so as to prioritize the most excluded and marginalized and have the best possible effects. As former American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt so eloquently put it “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Thank you for your attention.