WASH: Human right to clean drinking water and sanitation

663 million people have no access to improved drinking water and 2.5 billion have no adequate sanitation. The resulting diseases kill more children than malaria, measles and AIDS put together. This is therefore one of the key challenges of our day. 

Every dollar invested in clean water brings eight dollars of benefit to the economy

Whilst the human rights to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation are universally recognised, they are not universally implemented. Meeting these rights means that every individual must have access to healthy, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water, in sufficient quantities for personal needs and for use in the home. Similarly, sanitation facilities must be safe, hygienic, socially and culturally acceptable and affordable, and protect privacy and dignity. Clearly this cannot be done for nothing, but the financial outlay brings a huge economic benefit: every euro invested in this area can increase GDP by eight euros.

German-Spanish initiative on human rights to water and sanitation

Providing drinking water in Pakistan

Providing drinking water in Pakistan
© dpa/picture alliance

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Providing drinking water in Pakistan

Providing drinking water in Pakistan

Providing drinking water in Pakistan

Against this background, Germany and Spain have long been committed to the human rights to clean drinking water and sanitation. In 2008 the two countries succeeded in getting the UN Human Rights Council to mandate a Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. This independent expert helps to draw attention to specific issues and identify best practices and thus to clarify the content of these rights and how they can be met. Germany backs the work of the Special Rapporteur not only financially but also by supporting relevant resolutions in international bodies such as the Human Rights Council and the Third Committee of the General Assembly.

In 2013 Germany and Spain finally managed to persuade the UN General Assembly to explicitly recognise the human right to water for the first time. In 2015 the General Assembly adopted a resolution enshrining the rights to water and sanitation. One aim in doing so was to ensure greater attention for the sanitation aspect of the issue.

Guaranteeing the human rights to water and sanitation is an individual right and creates no claims between states. Whilst the implementation of these human rights is primarily a matter for states, how it happens – on a public or private basis – is up to the states themselves.

Much remains to be done

Nonetheless, much remains to be done, particularly in this area. Not least, the taboo surrounding the subject of sanitation needs to be removed, and there needs to be greater awareness about how to manage our finite water resources. Both these aspects are prerequisites for growth and prosperity and thus for a dignified life for all. 

Last updated 26.06.2017

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