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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 United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque Mission to the Republic of Kiribati

Tarawa, Kiribati
25 July 2012


From 23 to 26 July 2012, I am undertaking an official visit to Kiribati at the invitation of the Government. I am honored to be the first United Nations Special Rapporteur invited to this country. The objective of this visit was to examine the situation of the human rights to water and sanitation in Kiribati. I wish to firstly thank the Government for the cooperation extended during the preparation and throughout this mission. I also express a special thanks to the UN Country Team, who played a fundamental role in organizing and supporting the mission.

I had the opportunity to meet with Government departments, including Foreign Affairs, Public Works and Utilities, Health, and Internal and Social Affairs as well as the Public Utilities Board. I was particularly honored to be received by the Minister of Education. Meetings between the Special Rapporteurs and decision-makers provide unique opportunities to bring national concerns to the attention of the United Nations Member States. It was unfortunate that other high officials were unable to meet with me. I was also given an opportunity to visit several communities in South Tarawa and talk to people. I met with civil society organizations and development partners. I also met with representatives of AusAid, New Zealand Aid, JICA, the European Union, as well as with UN Country Team, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and SOPAC in Suva. 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 Kiribati.

The Human Rights to Water and Sanitation

Water and sanitation are human rights. Human rights are for all. These are not matters that can be relegated to charity, but rather impose specific legal obligations on governments, who are required to take concrete and deliberate steps to ensure the progressive realization of these fundamental human rights. Hence, each individual - from a child in South Tarawa 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, including hand washing and menstrual hygiene management with human dignity. 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 the effects of climate change, including emergencies or natural disasters that might affect these human rights.

The UN General Assembly adopted in 2010 a resolution recognizing that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. 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 (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women – to which Kiribati is a State Party. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the willingness of the Minister of Education to work towards the withdrawal Kiribati’s reservations to the CRC on the child’s rights to health including safe drinking water, social security and education. I urge the Government of Kiribati to withdraw these reservations.

Situation of the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation in Kiribati

Kiribati consists of 32 low lying atolls, spreading over 3.5 million square kilometers of ocean. Due to internal migration and natural population growth, nearly half of the country’s total population (103000) lives currently in South Tarawa. Some towns in South Tarawa, such Betio, are among the most densely populated areas in the world with 6600 inhabitants per square kilometer. These circumstances are putting an extreme stress on the infrastructure and water resources. The remoteness of Kiribati itself and distances between Tarawa and the country’s outer islands, which can be of more than 3 000 km, make the management of water and sanitation services a challenge.

The fact that the atolls in Kiribati rise no higher than 3 meters above sea level, makes the country extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Some communities on some of the outer islands, such as Abaiang, have already been forced to relocate due to coastal erosion, which is occurring as a consequence of climate change.

According to the latest WHO/UNICEF data, only 65% of the population of Kiribati has access to an improved water source and 33% has access to improved sanitation. Only South Tarawa and Christmas Islands have public water supply infrastructures and are partially connected to a water network. This supply is usually provided only three days a week for 2 hours a day. The rest of the population relies on rainwater supplies and well water. Given the contamination by the content of septic tanks and other sources of pollution in the water network and wells, water quality is a constant concern in the country. Furthermore, saltwater intrusion, aggravated by the rising sea level, into underground freshwater sources is equally affecting water quality and availability. Regarding sanitation, only approximately 2000 households in South Tarawa are connected to a waterborne sewage system, while most of the population uses deficient septic tanks or the beach, the sea or the bush as toilets.  

As the Government recognizes in its National Water Resources Policy, “the quantity of freshwater in the country is limited, demand is increasing and the quality of water is especially vulnerable”. Water-borne diseases are increasingly common, diarrheal diseases are endemic, outbreaks of typhoid occur annually and the country has the highest infant mortality rate in the Pacific region.

Legal and Institutional Framework

A first and crucial step that any Government must take in order to ensure the human rights to water and sanitation is to adopt and implement a national water and sanitation strategy and plan of action covering the whole 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 – including the establishment of an independent regulator - have to be allocated at the national level. Finally, a clear legal framework needs to be put in place for the sector.

In Kiribati, the National Development Strategy 2003-2007 and the National Development Plan 2008-2011 contain some policies and goals that are of direct relevance to the water and sanitation sectors, namely improving supply and quality of water, ensuring sustainability of water resources, promoting community participation for better use of water resources, rehabilitating and expanding existing water systems, improving collection, storage, treatment and distribution of water and rehabilitating the sanitation systems. I welcome the adoption of a National Water Resources Policy and a National Sanitation Policy in 2008 and 2010 respectively. These policies together contain 40 short to medium term priority issues that should have been implemented in the first three years and some additional 27 priority issues for the next 3-10 years. While the priority issues are all important, in my view, the priority setting was over ambitious, unfocused and seems to lack national ownership. I note in this regard that the priorities set for the first 3 years have yet to be implemented. In the current review of these policies, I encourage the Government to identify more targeted and achievable priorities. Such exercise undertaken by the Government itself will enable it to take ownership of its own policies and translate its commitment into actions.  

Another issue of concern to me is the fact that none of the governmental institutions I met with seemed to have a specific responsibility for sanitation and hygiene promotion. I was shocked by the high child mortality rate in Kiribati, which is the highest in the Pacific. If the country seriously wants to reduce preventable deaths of children, sanitation and hygiene are two vital issues to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The first step is to explicitly assign competences over sanitation to a government department and provide it with the necessary human and financial resources.

Practical Implementation

In Kiribati, a large proportion of the population practices open defecation, which is a technical way to say that they use the nature as their toilet. However, even if very good education campaigns are undertaken to stop open defecation, if people do not have any sanitation alternatives, they will have no choice but to go to the bush or sea to defecate. Even when people use off-site toilets, unless the issue of leaking septic tanks is addressed, a risk of spread of diseases remains high. While I learnt that composting toilets are one of the possible solutions being considered, I believe that wider and participatory discussions on the most suitable solutions have to take place.

Schools also lack adequate toilets with water and soap. This particularly affects girls during menstruation. It is common that girls miss three days of school every month particularly in outer islands where students have to walk a long distance to go to school. The Government should allocate enough and explicit budget for the maintenance of toilets in school.

In the area of water, as I said, the current situation is unsustainable and urgent measures have to be adopted to make sure that all Kiribatians have access to a sufficient quantity of water for their personal and domestic uses. Discussions and studies have been undertaken on this matter, and I repeatedly heard of the proposal to install desalination plants in South Tarawa. Desalination plants will obviously have very significant maintenance and operation costs, which will have to be reflected in prices that citizens will have to pay for water. The human right to water does not determine that water has to be free, but it determines that it has to be affordable to all. Affordability has to be taken into account as a priority when electing the most appropriate solutions for the water sector. The same goes for sustainability. Furthermore, I would advise the Government not to concentrate all efforts in one single solution, but rather to diversify measures to address the water scarcity challenges. This will contribute to both affordability and sustainability. One of the alternatives to desalination would be to increase the country’s rainwater harvesting and storage capacity. The efforts to protect and conserve the precious groundwater sources need to be boosted as well. For instance, leakages and losses of piped water in South Tarawa are said to be nearly 70% of the actual water supply – this is clearly the first priority to be tackled.

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

Kiribati is a breathtakingly beautiful country. But some parts of this beautiful small island country have been eroded and the country as a whole is threatened to be inundated in a very near future.

One of my 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 are being exacerbated by increasing water scarcity, saltwater intrusions, sea level rise and frequency of extreme weather events. I observed in Kiribati that effects of climate change are no longer a threat but a reality for people’s everyday life.

In Kiribati I met with several people who are not enjoying their rights to water and sanitation. Some of these denials are violations of the rights to water and sanitation by the effects of climate change combined with inaction or insufficient actions by the State and the international community.

I observed that the Government’s commitment to address the effects of climate change at the international level is not being fully translated into concrete actions to improve Kiribati people’s enjoyment of human rights, including access to water and sanitation. I strongly encourage the Government of Kiribati to put a strong focus on the identification of the actual needs of its people, including women and children, through participatory discussions and to seek targeted international assistance to address the identified needs. I also call upon the international community to continue to assist Kiribati in its adaptation measures. I believe that putting the rights to water and sanitation at the centre of discussions and planning will promote an adaptation process that puts people at the centre of priorities.

From a human rights standpoint, it is clear that it is first and foremost the Government of Kiribati which has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill its people’s enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation in any circumstances. We know however, that even though more steps must be taken by the Government to progressively ensure the realization of these rights, Kiribati, as one of the world’s least developed island countries, has limited capacities to tackle the current situation.

In this context, it is crucial to recall that, to comply with their international obligations in relation to the rights to water and sanitation, States have also to respect the enjoyment of these rights in other countries. In the case of effects of climate change, establishing an accountability mechanism is a challenge because it is indeed difficult to attribute a violation of human rights of a specific population to actions undertaken by States and the private sector in other parts of the world.

Regardless of the difficulty in identifying specific perpetrators of human rights violations caused by climate change, however, States have clear legal obligations to provide international assistance and cooperation.

In the case of the human rights to water and sanitation in Kiribati, industrialized countries, who are bound by the UN Charter as UN Member States and are parties to many international human rights treaties that set clear obligations in the area of international assistance and cooperation, should provide assistance not only to remedy past and current denials of the human rights to water and sanitation caused by climate change, but also to prevent future violations. Such assistance should aim at restoring and protecting peoples’ access to sustainable water and sanitation which are safe, available, affordable and accessible without discrimination.

Those countries most responsible for the current climate change crisis have a particular responsibility and therefore should be the front runners to urgently assist the most affected countries, such as Kiribati, in accordance with the legal obligations of States to prevent or remedy any denials of human rights caused by effects of their acts or omissions in other countries.

To conclude, I thank the Government for its willingness to engage with the Human Rights Council and my mandate to seek solutions to the human rights challenges faced by Kiribati. I am confident that the Government will take the necessary steps to prioritize the water and sanitation sectors in its efforts towards ensuring the full realization of these fundamental human rights for all of its population in this complex environment.

Thank you.