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United Nations Human Rights Office of the High commissioner
Welcome to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation

Press Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque - Mission to Tuvalu

Funafuti, Tuvalu
19 July 2012


From 17-19 July 2012, I undertook an official visit to Tuvalu at the invitation of the Government. I am honored to be the first human rights expert invited to this country. The objective of this visit was to examine the situation of the human rights to water and sanitation in Tuvalu. I wish to firstly thank the Government for the excellent cooperation exhibited during the preparation, and throughout this mission. I also extend a special thanks to a small but efficient United Nations’ representation, who have played a fundamental role in organizing and supporting the mission.  

During the mission I had the opportunity to meet with numerous Government departments, including Foreign Affairs, Public Utilities, Health, Education, Youths and Sports, Natural Resources, Finance and Economic Development, Personnel and Training, and Communication and Transport. I was also given an opportunity to visit a settlement on the outskirts of Funafuti and welcomed the dialogue with people living there. In addition, I met with civil society organizations and development partners. I visited a school and a group of residents in the outskirts of Funafuti with whom I discussed their access to water, sanitation and hygiene. Before coming to Tuvalu, I also met with representatives of AusAid and New Zealand Aid, as well as with United Nations Country Team and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC) in Suva. I wish to take this opportunity to thank all those who took their time to meet with me and help me better understand the situation of access to water and sanitation in Tuvalu. Later this week I will continue my meetings with other donor agencies in Suva.

The Human Rights to Water and Sanitation

Water and sanitation are human rights. Human rights are for everybody. Every individual - from a child in Funafuti to an old woman in one of the outer islands – is entitled to access to drinking water and adequate sanitation that is accessible, available, affordable, acceptable and safe. Water must be safe for human consumption, and sanitation facilities must safely separate human excreta from human or animal contact. The realization of these rights also requires ensuring access to adequate and affordable hygiene practices, like hand washing, and menstrual hygiene management. Effective measures have to be taken in order to avoid infiltration of human and animal waste into the groundwater, or into other water sources. Furthermore, appropriate mechanisms have to be put in place to deal with emergencies or natural disasters that might affect these human rights.

The Government of Tuvalu officially supported the UN General Assembly resolution recognizing that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. I warmly welcome such commitment. The UN Human Rights Council further affirmed that these rights derive from the right to an adequate standard of living, which is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women – to which Tuvalu is a State Party.  

Situation of the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation in Tuvalu

Funafuti, the country’s main island, accommodates half of the country’s population with a very high population density of 1,610 inhabitants per square kilometer. Population drift to Funafuti from the outer islands has been leading to overcrowding and increase in squatter settlements. Furthermore, the remoteness of Tuvalu itself and distances between Funafuti and the country’s outer islands make the management of water and sanitation services a challenge. One of their precious water sources, fresh water lenses, has been compromised by changes in rainfall, sea level rise and increased evapotranspiration. Groundwater in general was historically a non-potable secondary water source where salinity levels were not prohibitive. Its use as a secondary source has been severely compromised by pollution from inadequate sanitation systems in Funafuti and reportedly further aggravated by saltwater intrusions due to climate change. Now the population in Funafuti and in the outer islands depends on rainwater for consumption and other uses. Heavy reliance on rain water makes sustainable and continuous provision of water a further challenge, due to variations in the rainfall regime.

As of 2010, 98% of the population had access to improved source of water and 85 % of the population had access to improved sanitation facilities. However, these figures do not portray an accurate picture of the country’s situation regarding the enjoyment of these fundamental human rights and mask severe challenges currently faced by its population.

In fact, people cannot drink directly the water contained in the water storage tanks and have to boil it. Furthermore, and despite various efforts to improve the situation (such as provision of water tanks, improvement of water collection and others), I also observed that people are still suffering from a lack of water in sufficient quantities on a continuous basis. Several people told me that they have no confidence in the sustainability of the water supply, and fear the consequences of a future drought. I observed that some gutters and collection mechanisms are not in place or are not maintained. In addition, I was told that septic tanks are leaking, animal and human waste contaminates ground water and a significant amount of the population has no other option but to bathe and defecate in the sea.

I met a woman in the outskirts of Funafuti who had no toilet at home. She explained to me that the only alternative her family had was to use the sea as a toilet. However, older family members, who are not able to walk easily, have to be carried to the sea each time they need to urinate or defecate. The same woman uses the sea to bathe, being frequently harassed by boys in the neighborhood when she is physically exposed. In this woman’s community, most families face similar challenges.

Legal and Institutional Framework

A first and crucial step for any Government in order to protect the human rights to water and sanitation is to adopt and implement a national water strategy and plan of action covering the entire population. The strategy and plan of action should be devised, and periodically reviewed, on the basis of a participatory and transparent process. Furthermore, clear responsibilities in the water and sanitation sectors have to be allocated at the national level. Finally, a clear legal framework needs to be put in place for the sector.

In the case of Tuvalu, a draft Water Act as well as a Sustainable and Integrated Water and Sanitation Policy are being developed. I welcome these initiatives and encourage the Government to adopt these instruments as soon as possible in order to develop and put in place its water and sanitation management structure. 

This forthcoming legislative framework will provide an excellent opportunity to establish a clear allocation of responsibilities and strengthen inter-governmental and inter-sectoral coordination in the water and sanitation sectors. It goes without saying that the new structures must be accompanied by the necessary budget allocations for its actual implementation. For example, while the school curricula includes hygiene education in primary school, I was surprised to observe that a primary school in Tuvalu was not provided with sufficient soap and toilet paper and teachers often paid for soaps with their own money, so as to enable pupils to wash their hands namely after toilet use.

The elaboration of all such instruments must ensure an active and meaningful participation of civil society. Furthermore, I also call on the Government to ensure that greater preeminence is given to water and sanitation in the forthcoming TKII for the next term.

Practical Implementation of the human rights to water and sanitation

The current lack of a clear legal and institutional framework leads to some challenges in the enjoyment of the human right to water and sanitation. Taking into account the content of these rights, I would like to draw attention to some of the problems I observed in Tuvalu and make some recommendations to address them:

  1. The Government bears the main responsibility for the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation. The Government must take concrete and targeted steps within the maximum of available resources, including by seeking international cooperation aid and assistance.  In Tuvalu, most of the budget allocated to water, sanitation and hygiene is donor funded. It is crucial that Tuvalu takes the lead in determining what its priorities for the sector are and integrating donors’ initiatives into the Government’s activities, in order to ensure greater sustainability of interventions and impact on the lives of Tuvaluans. “Hardware” provided by donors in the form of project funding, has to be accompanied by equally relevant “software” measures, namely information and awareness raising regarding the maintenance of water tanks, pipes and gutters and the importance of hygiene practices – which have to be ensured even after completion of a given donors’ project.
  1. Access to water and sanitation must be affordable to all, in particular to those who have a lower income. The price paid for water, sanitation and hygiene must not compromise access to other human rights such as food, housing or education. I call on the Government to bear this in mind when discussing and adopting new water tariffs or when advancing the use of composting toilets. Innovative mechanisms, as the creation of a revolving fund, saving financial resources by harvesting more water from their government buildings, as well as the provision of targeted subsidies could help to support those families who lack the necessary resources to provide for these solutions.
  1. Water and sanitation must be available to all in sufficient quantity. I was informed that it rains enough to accommodate people’s needs in Tuvalu. What I observed, however, is that the water harvesting system is not utilized to its maximum potential. Existing buildings could be used to harvest more water for reserve. Legislation should contain clear standards determining that when new building construction either by the Government or by donors, water harvesting systems are installed. I welcome initiatives in the country to promote composting toilets, which will not only enable water savings, but will equally avoid many of the problems caused by inadequate waste water management. 

Impacts of Climate Variability and Climate Change on the Rights to Water and Sanitation of Vulnerable Populations

One of this mission’s objectives was to examine the impacts of climate change on the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation. Many of the above mentioned challenges regarding access to water and sanitation preexisted the effects of changing climate. However, climate change will exacerbate water scarcity, saltwater intrusions, sea level rise and frequency of extreme weather events.

Climate change is an everyday reality for people in Tuvalu. And climate change is slowly but steadily impacting their human rights to water and sanitation. For instance, each 1% increase in temperature is said to lead to increased risk of water-borne diseases such as severe diarrhea and increases in cholera. Those countries most responsible for the current climate change crisis should not turn their back to Tuvalu and comply with their legal obligations to prevent or remedy the impacts of climate change in the human rights of individuals and communities.

During my mission I have become deeply aware of a disconnection between the national level reality and the international level debate on the adverse impacts of climate change on people in Tuvalu. I saw little evidence that affected populations, including women and children, are informed of or participating in climate change discussions and policy-making.  In my opinion, this should change.
To conclude, I have the confidence that the Government of Tuvalu and the country’s people have the capacity to face the many challenges they have to make water and sanitation a more tangible reality. Hence I call on the Government, individuals and all relevant stakeholders to fully embrace with determination and perseverance the realization of these fundamental human rights in this complex environment.

Thank you.