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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

Intervention by Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation at the Human Rights Council 24th session Interactive Dialogue

11 September 2013, Palais des Nations, Geneva

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to be again here before you to present you four reports that I worked on in the past 12 months: my annual thematic report on sustainability and non-retrogression in realising the rights to water and sanitation, as well as three country mission reports to Tuvalu, Kiribati and Thailand.

But before presenting the reports, I would like to take a moment to inform you about the work that I have been doing on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. Because I believe that the biggest gap of the current global development agenda – the MDGs – consists in a disregard to the question of inequalities, I have been devoting attention to how to integrate the elimination of inequalities, focusing on the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups and individuals, into the new development framework that is starting to emerge.

Experience from past decades has shown that equality is not an automatic outcome of conventional development practice. Benefits delivered to the better-off do not naturally “trickle down” to the most marginalized. And we also know that the MDG’s focus on success stories and aggregate outcomes, has led countries to focus on ”low-hanging fruit“ or easy to reach persons and areas.

In this context, I have worked with hundreds of experts over the past two years under the UNICEF and WHO Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation and have developed a practical tool to monitor the progress made in progressively eliminating inequalities in usage of water and sanitation. This tool, however, is applicable to any other development sectors.

The tool compares progress in reduction in inequality between a range of groups as we progress towards the future goals and targets: between poor and rich, women and men, rural and urban, those in informal and formal settlements. Essentially, between any disadvantaged group and the general population – and countries and populations themselves should identify what “disadvantaged” means for them through a broad, inclusive process. Only when the gaps are closed or progressively reduced, the goals and targets can be considered “achieved”.

In this context, I would like to urge all Member States here in Geneva to coordinate with the respective Permanent Missions in New York in order to ensure that human rights and equality are integrated in the post-2015 development agenda. We cannot and must not pave the way to the coming 15 years where disparities will become even greater and the most disadvantaged will be missed out.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
As I already mentioned, my thematic report addresses the issue of sustainability and non-retrogression in the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation. During many of my country missions I have witnessed significant challenges in ensuring sustainability. I have seen countless hand pumps installed that became dysfunctional after a while in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Similarly, some wastewater plants stop being operational a short time after their construction, or never reach their optimum capacity both in middle income and developed countries. I have seen broken and abandoned desalination plants that look like ghosts by the ocean in small islands.

These situations are not systematically monitored. Even though the Millennium Development Goal target on water and sanitation calls for sustainable access, the monitoring framework fails to capture this crucial dimension – hence progress depicted is does not reflect the reality. Hence the MDGs are in fact providing an incentive for adopting quick solutions that may be unsustainable – as human and financial resources for operation and maintenance of services are often not considered in planning and budgeting processes.

These challenges are aggravated in times of economic and financial crisis – as the ones Europe is facing now. In adopting ‘austerity measures’, States do not always use the policy space afforded to them in order to adequately protect human rights and austerity measures have a disproportionate impact on those who are already disadvantaged in society. I have been receiving complaints from civil society organisations in European countries that are being most affected by the current crisis who tell me that poor people are facing enormous challenges to pay their water bills sometimes after the privatization of the services. As I have repeatedly explained in various occasions, human rights are not against privatization per se. However it is just still the Government’s obligation to ensure its population’s access to water and sanitation even when the actual services are delivered by private companies.

We know that in times of crisis, States often adopt austerity measures that are taken deliberately and have retrogressive effects. However, some State acts and omissions may have a retrogressive effect, even if not deliberately. Where States fail to ensure adequate operation and maintenance, where they fail to implement adequate mechanisms for regulation, monitoring and sector oversight, or where they fail to build and strengthen their capacity in the long term, the result may be unsustainable interventions that lead to retrogression in the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation. While such retrogression cannot always be avoided, the human rights framework requires that States act with care and deliberation, exercise due diligence to assess the impacts of their actions and omissions on the realization of human rights, and adjust their policies and measures as soon as they become aware that current policies might lead to unsustainable results.

Challenges to sustainability should be addressed holistically, both in times of economic growth as well as in times of economic crisis, so that States are better prepared for times of crisis.
Sustainability is a fundamental human rights principle essential for realizing the human rights to water and sanitation. The human rights framework warrants a holistic understanding of sustainability as the direct counterpart to retrogression. For services to be sustainable, they must be available, accessible and affordable to everyone on a continuous and predictable basis, without discrimination. Human rights law requires progressive realization towards fully realizing the human rights to water and sanitation for everyone. Once services and facilities have been improved, the positive change must be maintained and slippages or retrogression must be avoided.

Sustainability requires water and sanitation to be provided in a way that respects the natural environment and ensures a balance of the different economic, social and environmental dimensions. Services must be available for present and future generations, and the provision of services today should not compromise the ability of future generations to realize the human rights to water and sanitation.
Integrating human rights in policies and programmes contributes to ensuring sustainability. Policies and programmes based on human rights standards and principles will last for future generations. This requires:

1. States to plan holistically and in coordinated manner, aiming for sustained, universal coverage. It is the State’s obligation to develop its vision of how to ensure services for everyone, forever. States must devote the necessary financial and institutional resources to operation and maintenance in order to avoid retrogression. During periods of growth, States should plan for the long-term realization of the rights to water and sanitation so as to build resilience for times of crisis. In Namibia for example the Government has been a leader in planning and budgeting for the water and sanitation sectors in such a way as to avoid retrogression or slippages. I have also observed that austerity measures often include increased private sector participation as a means for governments to raise revenue in the short-term. While certain safeguards are in place to protect users, concerns relating to sustainability remain. Often profits made by private operators are mainly distributed among shareholders, rather than being reinvested in maintaining and extending service provision, the result being increased prices for consumers and continued need for public investment. States must ensure that the necessary investments are committed back into the system and that contracts take account of requirements for operation and maintenance.

2. Sustainable financing: Sustainable service provision relies on raising sufficient revenue for maintaining, improving and expanding systems. Yet, this must be achieved in such a way as to ensure the social dimension of sustainability for all people, including those living in poverty. Human rights do not require water and sanitation services to be provided free of charge, but they must be affordable. This requires a safety net for those who cannot afford to pay full costs. In Chile, for example, the Government has a good mechanism in place to ensure water affordability for the poor people.

As resources are scarce, policy-makers may perceive a dilemma of prioritizing sustainability (“forever”) or expanding services to those yet un-served (“everyone”). The human rights framework stresses the imperative of achieving equality through the efficient use of resources. States must eliminate inequalities in access and expand access to minimum essential service levels before improving service levels for those already served. The principles of sustainability and equality complement each other: True sustainability can be achieved only when everyone has access to services.

3. Meaningful participation is not only required to ensure that water and sanitation services are socially and culturally acceptable, but also secures their sustainable use and practice. Ensuring meaningful participation is challenging, in particular during times of crisis due to time constraints and the perceived need for quick solutions. However, I witnessed two opposite results of the same solution in Tuvalu, for example, A dry compost toilet is a sustainable solution for a country like Tuvalu where rainwater is the only scarce freshwater resource. Without participation, the toilet was hated almost as a “taboo”, but with meaning participation, the toilet was adjusted to people’s needs, and people also started understanding the value of the compost toilet, and it is gradually accepted there.

4. Effective monitoring, independent regulation and accountability prevent corruption, improve data, and lead to informed planning and budgeting decisions. States must ensure independent regulation of the water and sanitation sectors, and they must put in place accountability mechanisms to deal with unsustainable and retrogressive practices.

Sustainability in the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation is one of the important issues to be considered and integrated in the ongoing discussions on post-2015 development agenda and sustainable development goals. With the same intention, I will present a report on management of wastewater and water pollution to the General Assembly this October. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to now briefly outline the main features of my country missions to Tuvalu, Kiribati and Thailand. I thank the Governments for the excellent cooperation and constructive dialogues throughout the visits as well as in follow up and preparation of the missions. I look forward to being of assistance in the implementation of my recommendations.

From 17-19 July and 23-26 July 2012 respectively, I had the privilege to visit Tuvalu and Kiribati as the first special procedures mandate holder. Tuvalu and Kiribati are small islands in the Pacific (with 10 000 and 100 000 inhabitants respectively), far from the rest of the world. I have to confess that I myself felt the isolation and vulnerability to the environment of these islands that consist of very narrow strips of land, lying hardly above sea level and where the airport runway represents a significant proportion of the country’s area.

Despite the extremely challenging environment of a small island country of coral atolls affected by climate change, Tuvalu has made progress in improving the situation of human rights to water and sanitation with extensive assistance from the international community. However, I noted Tuvaluans’ harsh everyday life in terms of access to water and sanitation. While various challenges regarding access to water and sanitation have long existed in Tuvalu, the effects of climate change are increasing and will further increase the country’s vulnerability and exacerbate water scarcity, saltwater intrusions, sea level rise and frequency of extreme weather events.

The Government and people of Tuvalu must come together to respond to their complex environment and make the human rights to water and sanitation a tangible reality, take ownership of national priorities in the area and prioritize easy and low cost solutions aimed, inter alia, at increasing rainwater storage capacity to help face shortages in the dry months. At the same time, the international community should not turn its back on Tuvalu and should comply with its legal obligation to prevent or remedy the impacts of climate change on the human rights of individuals and communities in Tuvalu.

Kiribati is equally facing enormous challenges in realizing the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation due to its geographic and financial difficulties, which are aggravated by adverse effects of climate change. The country must urgently address the essential issues of sanitation and hygiene in order to reduce the large number of preventable infant and child deaths. In the area of sanitation, I urge Kiribati to positively consider implementing eco-sanitation solutions and learn from positive experiences in this regard that occurred in neighboring Tuvalu.

Kiribati has been working with the international community to improve its water and sanitation situation. It should, however, in my view, take greater ownership of the efforts being undertaken with the support of international donors, and ensure access to water and sanitation as one of the most important adaptation measures. Adaptation plans should place the human rights to water and sanitation at the centre in order to respond to people’s actual needs without discrimination.

1-8 February this year, I visited Thailand. I would like to first mention that the coordination and preparation of my mission by the Government and its partner were very impressive. In the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation, Thailand made enormous achievements in the last decades, particularly in the challenging area of basic rural sanitation. At the same time, striking contrasts in access persist between those who have benefited from the rapid development the country has achieved and those groups of people who have been left behind including migrants, indigenous peoples, informal settlement dwellers and prisoners. Other remaining challenges are water quality, safe management, disposal and treatment of wastewater and treatment of sewage from septic tanks.

I strongly encourage the Government of Thailand to revisit the situation of access to safe drinking water and sanitation from a human rights point of view to ensure these human rights are fully realized for all in terms of quality, availability, affordability, accessibility and adaptability of services and that inequalities in access are eliminated. I would also like to remind 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.

I call on the Government to take more vigorous, efficient and targeted measures to address and mitigate pollution and bring greater transparency to the processes of licensing of industries and enhanced accountability for those who violate the law.

Finally, I call on the Government of Thailand, which has been a leader in advocating the importance of water quality in the framework of the global development agenda, and also a lead member of the Friends of Water Group in New York, to promote the inclusion of quality and elimination of inequalities, as well as other criteria, into the post-2015 water and sanitation global development agenda.

Country missions can only be labelled as successful if there is follow-up to the recommendations and if steps are taken to implement them. En este contexto quisiera aprovechar esta ocasión para agradecer al Gobierno de Uruguay por informarme espontáneamente sobre las medidas adoptadas con base en las recomendaciones contenidas en el informe de misión que presenté a este Consejo el año pasado. En este sentido, quisiera resaltar los esfuerzos realizados con objeto de mejorar la situación que viven algunos sectores específicos de la población, tales como aquellos en asentamientos irregulares y/o zonas rurales. Por otro lado me congratula saber que el Gobierno está considerando mis recomendaciones en materia del derecho al saneamiento en el proceso de adoptar soluciones técnicamente viables para el país. Sin más, agradezco al Gobierno de Uruguay por el seguimiento dado a mis recomendaciones, y exhorto a los demás Estados que he visitado, hagan lo mismo.


To conclude, in the efforts that I am making together with the Member States, international organizations, civil society and other partners towards the full realization of the human rights to water and sanitation, I am dedicating time to the development of a Handbook for realising the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation in my final year as UN Special Rapporteur. This is a practical tool to assist States at national, regional and local levels in overcoming the challenges presented in realising the rights.

I will be publishing this Handbook at the end of the second term of my mandate, in September 2014, but will be requesting your support and input during the next six months to ensure that this Handbook addresses the concerns and needs that States face in realising the rights to water and sanitation. For that purpose a Note Verbale will be circulated to all Member States at the end of this month.

I am looking forward to your inputs and contributions to make this Handbook a living tool to realize the human rights to water and sanitation. I am also looking forward to working with all of you to pave the way to eliminate inequalities and realize universal usage of water and sanitation in my last year as the UN Special Rapporteur.