Alternative World Water Forum

The consequences of a lack of safe water and sanitation for human health and dignity are severe. Millions of lives and livelihoods are disturbed by a lack of access to water and sanitation, and people are forced to risk their health and wellbeing by resorting to unsafe sources and facilities.

This crisis is entirely avoidable. The world has the technologies, the financial resources, as well as the water resources to make safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for all people a reality. What has been lacking is the political will to make access to safe drinking water and sanitation for all people – including the poorest and most marginalized – a clear political and developmental priority.

However, the full recognition of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation by the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2010 has fundamentally changed the relationship between the State and deprived individuals. Human rights law entails the concept of people as rights holders and governments as primary duty bearers of not only the rights to water and sanitation, but of all human rights.

States are obliged to implement the rights to water and sanitation into their national legal systems. Jurisprudence on these human rights adds another crucial layer to ensure these rights are enforced in practice and will become a reality for everyone, not just on paper.

A progressive judiciary that is cognisant of the linkages between different human rights can give real impetus to the advancement of the full range of economic, social and cultural rights. Courts and other accountability and remedial mechanisms must ensure that laws are interpreted consistently with international human rights as well as to further the overarching aims of dignity and equality.

Furthermore, the role of the judiciary is to enforce the law by ensuring accountability and by providing remedies in cases of violation. Remedies can range from interim measures to far reaching orders that require the executive to review or newly devise programmes. In fulfilling its role, the judiciary thereby also sets important precedents that can impact future practices.

This compilation of case law shows that judges are increasingly willing to apply the human rights to water and sanitation. In doing so, the judiciary may base judgments explicitly on the rights to water and/or sanitation. In other cases, judges arrive at the conclusion that other human rights are rendered meaningless without at least minimum levels of water and sanitation services.

This publication contains cases where rights to water and sanitation are derived from the rights to education, health and housing – none of which can be effectively realised without adequate water and sanitation services. Other cases speak to the importance of controlling pollution of the environment to safeguard human rights, including particularly the rights to health and water. The rights of indigenous peoples are dependent on both access ing water resources and their protection from contamination. The impact of extreme poverty on the realisation of rights to water and/or sanitation also becomes apparent in judgements which expose problems with affordability of services or a general neglect by the state to provide minimum levels of service. Last but not least, a number of cases concern racist practices where minority communities received inferior services or, in South African Courts, where the long-term impacts of apartheid still result in major inequalities in service provision.

This publication thereby shows that all human rights are interdependent, interconnected and indivisible. This gives the judiciary scope to base their judgements not only on the rights to water and/or sanitation, but also on other human rights.

Read more on this publication by WASH United and WaterLex

Categories: Global stories

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