Why a human rights based approach to water and sanitation is essential for the poor


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It may have taken decades, but access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation is now firmly recognized as a human right. How did this happen? What does it mean in practice? And how can it help the rural poor gain access?

In July of 2010, the United Nations General Assembly “explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights” in Resolution A/RES/64/292. Despite these commitments, investments to date have largely proved insufficient to guarantee universal access. Today, 844 million people lack access to safe drinking water, and more than twice that number (2.3 billion) do not have access to adequate sanitation. Take the example of Mozambique. New World Bank research, the ‘WASH Poverty Diagnostic’, reveals that access to improved water on premises could be as low as 32 percent in rural areas, and as high as 69 percent in urban areas. The research finds that inequitable access is due to poor governance and lack of specific attention to the poor and vulnerable; not only it is a matter of life and death, water and sanitation are basic rights.

In what follows, we will look at what a human-rights based approach to water and sanitation entails, and how it can improve access to water and sanitation for vulnerable groups. First, however, let’s start with a quick history lesson. The process to recognize The Human Right to Water and Sanitation started almost 30 years ago, through a series of international treaties and declarations. From the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989, to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in 2002, and the release in 2006 of the Sub-Commission Guidelines for the Realization of the Right to Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation, it became undisputed that access to water supply and sanitation is a human right and a central element for poverty reduction and improved well-being. 

The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use. The human rights based approach (HRBA) guides development partners on how to direct their operations to support governments in implementing human rights standards and principles. This means on the one hand developing the capacity of governments and implementing agencies to meet their obligations to protect, respect and fulfil human rights. On the other hand, a HRBA provides a framework to empower the rights-holders to claim their rights and facilitate their roles as agents of change.

A HRBA is focused on the process as much as on outcomes. This means that it matters how development happens. Human rights principles guide this process, and include the principles of universality and indivisibility, participation and inclusion, equity and non-discrimination, and accountability and rule of law. These principles also underpin the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including Goal 6 on access to clear water and sanitation.

The principle of active and meaningful participation, for example, means that communities and vulnerable groups will be empowered to take part in decision-making processes. It strengthens their voice so that they are not excluded when services are rendered and expanded and allows them to demand accountability from institutions in charge of allocating scarce resources.

The HRBA recognizes five dimensions necessary to guarantee that WASH is delivered and preserved as a human right:

In summary
While progress has yet to match ambition, the recognition of water and sanitation as a human right has dramatically changed the way in which the WASH sector designs, plans, implements and monitors policies and programs  aimed at increasing access to these basic services. A human rights based approach to water and sanitation helps development agencies systematically consider the rural poor and vulnerable, and through that, increase the likelihood of quality WASH services for all.

Follow up blog: How a human rights based approach to water and sanitation improves institutions for the poor
looks at how formal and informal institutional practices influence the realization of the right to water and sanitation, resulting in large inequities in provision of these services and making spending in the sector inefficient and regressive.


Eva Kloeve

Senior Program Officer in the Nordic Trust Fund Secretariat in the World Bank

Moukoue Joseph
October 02, 2018

Cette approche est salutaire. Seulement il faut déplorer le fait que son appropriation par les États des pays en développement en général tarde encore à se faire. Or, le gros des populations rurales necessiteuse s'y retrouve.
Et pourtant cette approche conduirait à réduire grandement le gab en déficit d'accès en eau et assainissement tel qu'observé aujourd'hui.

Michael P Jackson
October 08, 2018

Spot on article. All data indicates the problem arises from the user fee economic model. It shows that in no way can this methodology fund waters and sanitatiin infrastructure and moreover can not insure a Return On Investment.
I have proffered a solution "A Water Monetary Standard: an economic thesis" published by IWA RePEc paper 924. It would sustainably and adequately fund water and sanitation. Using micro-indicators it would insure ROI and create stable predictable local economies based on functioning water and sanitation infrastructure systems; reversing the dilemma created by the user fee model.

Kathryn Padgett
December 10, 2018

Thank you for this. Can you please provide the citation information that is footnoted on "The Human Right to Water" graphic displayed?

Dr Wendy Ella Wright
September 15, 2021

I would like to talk more about case specific culturally acceptable odour and colour of water. Thankyou all for being in our lives. From Wendy.

kedi john paul
April 06, 2022

I have appreciated the content for it provides guidance to practitioners on how to maximize the involvement of the beneficiary communities in recognizing and identifying the community water needs, making decisions and participating in the project implementation. This Maximizes the project benefits and ensures sustainability