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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

Frequently Asked Questions

The recognition of the rights to water and sanitation is a breakthrough that ends a long lasting discussion, but it is only a first step. Now it is crucial to implement these rights and turn them into a reality for everyone. Understanding what the human rights to water and sanitation require, and do not require, is essential for avoiding misunderstandings, building broad political support for this vital subject and achieving the ultimate goal of ensuring full universal access to safe water and sanitation.

Q: Is there sufficient water to ensure enjoyment of the human right to water in all countries?
A: Yes. There is sufficient water to satisfy the needs covered by the right to water in virtually all countries of the world – it is much more a question of equitable distribution. On average, overall household water use accounts for less than 10% of total water use, while industry and agriculture are the largest water users. The right to water is limited to basic personal and domestic needs, which account for only a fraction of overall domestic use. Even in the context of climate change, which affects overall water availability, water for personal and domestic uses can still be ensured, if prioritized as required by human rights law.

Q: Is 20 litres per capita per day sufficient for the full realisation of the right to water?
A: No. 20 liters per capita per day is a minimum quantity required to realize minimum essential levels of the right, but there remain significant health concerns. To ensure the full realisation of the right, States should aim for at least 50 to 100 litres per person per day.

Q: Are the costs of realising the rights to water and sanitation for all prohibitive?
A: No. It is true that investing in water and sanitation is costly. Yet, evidence has shown that the cost of not ensuring access to drinking water and sanitation is even higher in terms of public health and lost work and school days. For each dollar invested in water and sanitation, on average there is a return of 8 dollars in costs averted and productivity gained. Also, the human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation are subject to progressive realization. Thus universal coverage does not need to be achieved immediately, but every State must demonstrate that it is taking steps towards this goal to the maximum of its available resources and continually moving in this direction.

Q: Do States have to provide access directly?
A: No. Human rights do not require States to directly provide individuals with water and sanitation. Their primary obligation is to create an environment conducive to the realisation of human rights. Individuals are expected to contribute with their own means. Only in certain conditions, such as extreme poverty or natural disasters, when people, for reasons beyond their control, are genuinely unable to access water and sanitation through their own means, is the State obliged to actually provide services.

Q: Is everyone – even those living in remote areas – entitled to piped water and a flush toilet connected to sewerage network?
A: No. States have to ensure that everyone has access to services that comply with the standards discussed in this leaflet (availability, acceptability, accessibility, affordability, quality), but different settings require different water and sanitation solutions. States have a margin of discretion to adopt the measures most suited to the specific circumstances.

Q: Do States have to provide services free of charge?
A: No. States are not obliged to provide access to water and sanitation free of charge. Human rights require services to be affordable and not to compromise the realization of other human rights such as food, housing and health. Those who can have to contribute financially or in kind.

Q: Do human rights prohibit private provision of water and sanitation services?
A: No. Human rights do not require a particular model of service provision. They do not exclude private provision (including privatization). Yet States must ensure access for all, as well as ensuring – through adequate oversight and regulation, including effective monitoring and complaint procedures – that the actions of all actors, public and private, do not result in human rights violations.

Q: Are water and sanitation equally important?
A: Yes. Water and sanitation are integrally related and equally important for a life of health and dignity. Lack of safe sanitation is a major cause of contamination of water sources, so without safe sanitation, safe drinking water is impossible. Many diseases are caused by the lack of access to safe sanitation, or by poor quality water. Safe water is essential for hygiene.

Q: Do human rights contribute to providing access to water and sanitation?
A: Yes. Among other things, they establish a legal framework, which clearly defines rights and obligations, and promote pro-poor and non-discriminatory service provision. They decisively contribute to the empowerment of individuals by transforming them from passive recipients to active agents of change. Access to water and sanitation is no longer a matter of charity or welfare, but a legal entitlement.