Upholding Human Right to Water

Residents of Lagos protesting against privatization of water
Residents of Lagos protesting against privatization of water (ClimateReporters Photo: Ugonma Cokey)

By Ugonma Cokey

The world on April 1, entered the second quarter of 2015 which is also the second quarter of the last year of the “International Decade for Action for Action ‘Water for Life’2005- 2015 as proclaimed by the United Nations at its meeting in December 2003. The Decade officially started on World Water Day 2005 making the World Water Day in March 2015 exactly a Decade.

The Decade was to “promote efforts to fulfil international commitments made on water and water-related issues by 2015”, and to ensure that the water-related goals of the Millennium Development Goals, the Johannesburg Plan of implementation of the World Summit for Sustainable Development the largest –ever gathering of world leaders, and Agenda 21 is achieved. After the World Summit, there has been several other meetings to deliberate on water and sanitation, though some progress has been made the World is yet to meet its target.

2 in 10 have no source of drinking water. About 1.8 billion people are still in need of safe, clean water today. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), millions of people, mostly children die every year; about 3,900 children die every day because of dirty water or poor hygiene. Disease transmitted through water or human excrement are the second- leading cause of death among children worldwide because water is so crucial to life.

Water is life
Without water no living thing can survive. The Food and Agriculture Organisation says  a daily drinking water requirement per person are 2-4 litres and it takes 2,000- 5,000 litres of water to produce a person’s daily food. It also says Africa has the prevalence rate of hunger after Oceania; it is also the driest continent, meaning that water is not only essential for survival, but necessary for daily living. Water is essential for basic human needs including food, sanitation, good health, energy, transportation, industrial and domestic uses.

Unfortunately, its scarcity and poor quality impacts negatively on food security, livelihood choices, and educational opportunities for poor families across the world. Water related-issues are not going to abate soon in the coming years especially with the impact of climate change, rain related- issues like drought, floods, etc. Population growth resulting in few people needing small available resources, crisis, wars, insurgency, pollution affecting so many countries especially in West Africa are also other factors generating demand beyond the available water supply. According to the UN World Water Development Report, at least 1 in 4 people is likely to live in a country affected by chronic recurring shortages of fresh water.

Water is a human right
To ensure that the world prioritise water–related issues, On 28 July 2010, the UN General

Residents of Lagos protesting against privatization of water 2 (ClimateReporters Photo: Ugonma Cokey)
Residents of Lagos protesting against privatization of water 2 (ClimateReporters Photo: Ugonma Cokey)

Assembly recognised the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that “ Clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.”  The Resolution called upon States and international organisations “Provide financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.”

In November 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had adopted what it called “General Comment No 15” on the right to water, in which it said that “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights” Comment No 15, also described the right to water “as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.”

How achievable has sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable been when in some areas in rural Sub-Saharan Africa millions of people share their domestic water sources with animals or rely on unprotected wells that are breeding grounds for pathogens or take water from canals and irrigation ditches, with risks of exposure to polluted agricultural run-off ?

How have governments especially in Africa been able to provide this right when the average distance that women walk to collect water is 6 kilometres? The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon says “The children who have no clean water to drink, the women who fear for their safety, the young people who have no chance to receive a decent education have a right to better, and we have a responsibility to do better. All people have the right to safe drinking water, sanitation, shelter and basic services.”

Water a commodity
To affirm this fundamental right, 15,723 individuals and organisations both local and international stood in solidarity with the Nigerian people to affirm the fundamental right to clean water and independent self governance. The group led by the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria expressed concern that the World Bank and the private water industry are using their financial might and influence to push water privatisation plan in the biggest city in the African continent.

Interestingly, the World Bank has acknowledged that its entire water project in Nigeria from 1979 to 2004, is a failure including Lagos. Yet, the Lagos State government recently engaged the World Banks private arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in discussions regarding designs for a public private partnership water privatization scheme. This is in spite of the billions of dollars of loans from the World Bank, French governments and international donor agencies over the years to make water supply and services accessible and affordable for citizens which have instead saddled government with debts.

According to the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth ,Nigeria “The PPP water privatization solution being promoted by the government has a frightening track record of failure, prices skyrocket, utility workers lose their jobs, water quality suffers, low income communities have their water shut off, government incur devastating debt ,and public sovereignty is threatened by undemocratic arbitration.”

So how can the right to water be upheld? If water is life why can’t the people whose lives be affected be allowed to participate in water-related decisions? If water is a human right, should it not be government obligation to make it accessible and affordable to citizens through prioritizing it?


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