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Does Sanitation as a Human Right = Free Toilets?

Craig Kullmann's picture

Earlier this month, the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), Nordic Human Rights Trust Fund, and the World Bank’s Sanitation Thematic Group hosted Catarina de Albuquerque, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to sanitation and safe drinking water. She discussed the human right to sanitation with sector and human rights experts, and what it means in practice. One of the most notable questions she addressed was--- if something is a human right, does that mean it has to be free? 

Human rights such as education, health, food, or in this case, sanitation, means many things, but free is not one of them.  That said, UN resolutions or conventions that declare something a human right mean that the state is obligated to create the conditions to ensure that these rights are affordable to rich and poor alike. Ms. Albuquerque confirmed that while sanitation is a universal and inalienable human right, it does not mean it is free.

Why would we be concerned whether the right to sanitation could be misconstrued to mean free toilets? To clarify, in this post when I talk about sanitation, I exclusively mean the management of human feces. The concern among sector professionals (including myself) is that we still have 1.8 billion people in rural areas without access to sanitation, and over 700 million people in urban areas. For decades, governments, donors, and NGOs have given toilets out for free, yet we still have 2.5 billion without access. 

In part, the problem is ineffective supply driven sanitation programming – particularly on-site facilities (e.g. latrines) in rural areas. This outdated model is still practiced in many places, which means toilets are handed out for free without stimulating household demand for sanitation or understanding what households want or need in a toilet. This results in 1.) toilets getting constructed but not used as intended; 2.) communities that could afford toilets wait for free ones since sanitation is not a priority (there are more cells phones than toilets in India); and 3.) ineffective targeting mechanisms often result in wealthier households capturing subsidies, leaving the poor behind without any access. This is exemplified in South Asia where there has been virtually no progress in gaining access to sanitation among households in the poorest wealth quintiles over the last twenty years unlike their rich counterparts in the wealthiest quintiles.

In spite of this lack of progress, many sector professionals are still fighting the head winds of supply driven approaches, and struggling to get buy in for evidence-based best practices that are demand–responsive and community- led, resulting in sustainable sanitation solutions.  So there is good reason to be concerned about whether the human right to sanitation could provide new arguments for those who continue to support supply driven approaches and continue with the distribution of free toilets.

But if we ignore or downplay the human right to sanitation because we are worried that local political leaders or organizations will use the concept to promote their agenda, are we missing the bigger political issue among national level decision makers?  The bigger issue is that governments are not paying enough attention to sanitation and are not investing adequate human or financial resources to reach the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets let alone universal access.

As sector professionals, I think we need to ask ourselves, can we use the legality of the resolution on human rights to sanitation to help shift the political economy, and the enabling environment in countries to provide a mechanism to give the poor a voice in the political process? Can this help redistribute scarce public resources from better off households who receive subsidized services (but can afford full payment for services) to targeted market based subsidies to those who actually need it? Can it help ensure equal rights for land tenancy legitimizing the ability of utilities to extend water and sanitation networks to densely populated urban and peri-urban unplanned settlements? 

I believe the human rights to sanitation can play a part in addressing these questions, and sector professionals need to take a gamble and embrace the UN resolution. The resolution has been adopted so lets not worry about how others will use, but rather lets take advantage and use it ourselves as a tool to force a shift in the political economy of sanitation. With sanitation declared as a human right, governments are accountable to distribute their scarce resources in a more equitable manner, and we just might be able to make a difference among those who need it the most.

Who knows, perhaps if sanitation were declared a human right long ago, we would not be in the predicament that we are today.


Submitted by A.N. Singh on
I am trying institional model which can work successfully Indian context. India is a very big and populous country. The basic problem is management of growing population with adequate behavioural change. Introducing sanitation through school is very important to design a good future. Toilets issues may not be linked to human rights like right to education, health etc. In has to linked with habit formation and behavioural change. Primary ducation system has to be ovr hauled. Citing example of mobile phones uses probably should not be linked to toilet uses. International/national agencies dealing with subject must think and care while citing such critic example. The scenerio will certainly going to change with time. Sanitation is a very bib issue immersed to day needs multy corner approach. One is it must be seen as a greatest sin our religious leaders must tag such messages while leading any religious celebration. As wee are trying in pur case, and getting success. people are comimg forward.

Submitted by susanna smets on
Hi Craig, Good blog, and already has sparked off interest with the Lao team here in using the "human right" dimension in their advocacy work with government, while arguing a move away from the supply-led approach! best Susanna

Submitted by Craig on
Sounds interesting. If you want to talk with Catarina I am sure she would be more than happy to discuss.

Submitted by Kitchinme Bawa on
I will like to talk to Catarina on how i can develop something for WaterAid in Nigeria to get political will and action . Kitchinme Bawa Sanitation focal person WaterAid in Nigeria

Submitted by Craig on
Thank you for your post, and yes we can put you in touch with Catarina.

Dear Craig, thanks a lot for this great post. It really reflects my approach! I agree that wen should use the human rights framework to boost political support and visibility for the sector! we have to make clear that the concept of human rights is not misinterpret, Obviously. I am convinced that your pragmatic approach is great. Wild it be possible for us to work together on some project or initiative? I could give some support regarding the application of RTS! All the best

Craig, Well put, and thanks for touching on the political dimension on rights. Though it has increasingly become fashionable in India to talk about right to Water and sanitation, as a practitioner, I am more wary of the political dimension of the same. As P.B Anand's, in his assessment of right to water in select countries articulate very clearly "mechanisms of governance may be more important in improving access to water than a formal articulation of a right to water". Right to water (i am keeping sanitation out of this as of now), as always been problematic, as it has acted as a double edged sword. It has emerged as a tool for justifying ecologically damaging mega dam projects, where the need to satisfy drinking water demands have been acknowledged over and above forced evictions of people and species. Rights open up new avenues for political economy gains. Failure of governance systems to ensure right to water pressurizes them to outsource supply. Privatization of service delivery follows naturally. There is very little one can hold private suppliers to, in a weak legal framework. The severe groundwater abstraction in urban peripheries by private water suppliers have not come under legal sanction. Right to water does not spell out the responsibility of the service delivery mechanisms to ecosystems and livelihoods. I can drain an aquifer and make farmers lose their livelihoods in order to provide drinking water to others, and that's totally justifiable, especially when drinking water is a right and water for livelihoods is not. That economics will be delinked from human rights discourses is a given. In the case of sanitation, this will further push investments, much to the happiness of contractors and corrupt officials who have made a killing out of these projects. And please, lets stop using example of how there are more mobile phones than toilets. Its a classic apples to peaches comparison. Mobile services have enabled livelihoods gains, hence their popularity with the poor. People prioritize their investments on tangible gains, and not on intangible benefits which accrue from using a toilet. It is strange that we will need to find scope in a RTS to create space for communities to voice their concerns in political processes. There are several other rights in India which are much more fundamental such as food, health, education where we have not seen a clear case of communities articulating for rights. Even in health! What makes us think that RTS will be transformative? And by stating that poor do not have voice in political processes is complete misreading of development issues, which denies them agency. The poor engage with politics with much more enthusiasm and vigor than the rich, as their survival is politics and access through political means. It is sad that in this rush to get RTS, we have not probed the crises in governance that has made previous attempts around right to health, food etc fall flat on its face.

Submitted by Kitchinme Bawa on
'Can we use the legality of the resolution on human rights to sanitation to help shift the political economy, and the enabling environment in countries to provide a mechanism to give the poor a voice in the political process?' That's the million Dollar question that begs an answer. My answer to that is Yes We Can!! However, fwe ought to get all the signitories to this to domestic this human right in a way that obligates the duty bearer to deploy resources towards making that right achievable. This leaves another question unanswered: what about those nations where rights are at the whims of the leaders to dispense? Ang here is where the development of context specific solutions come into play. The bottom line is to stimulate demand foro sanitation and facilitate easy access to the supply chain.

Dear Catarina and all, It is important that sanitation is a human right and the discussion of free or paid service needs to be done. Sanitation value chains can bring some income to providers by delivering quality services to people that can afford to pay something for a good service. I'm also sure that cities can pay for sanitation services to it citizens to save money on handling pollution, health costs and clean up budgets. Our organization has maize in the ground now with an agricultural research body in Uganda to see how our pathogen free sludge can be a valuable natural fertilizer securing value creation and limiting pollution. But to achieve results in urban areas there also has to be free access for vulnerable groups and the poorest members of the community. New business models with city/national or donor funding need to be developed to send back some of the society savings back to the sanitation provider. This will give quality toilet access and more innovation to the sector - I believe that this business minded approach is the only way to dent, and some day assure sanitation for all and a fulfillment of this important human right.

Submitted by Craig on
Thank you for you post. Agree with the comment that the sector needs to bring in innovation around sustainable business models for sanitation for both rural and and urban contexts. Urban and rural sanitation have their own unique challenges that require different solutions. The sector needs to do a better job of sharing sustainable sanitation business models that work at scale, and are able to serve the poor.

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