Skip to main content

Back to Reports

The international fight for the human rights to water and sanitation

By Maude Barlow

Report by Maude Barlow - Our Right to Water

At present, 2.2 billion people do not have adequate access to clean drinking water and 4.2 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services. Dirty water kills more children than all forms of violence together, including war.
Water was not included in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights because, at the time, the lack of water was not an issue. In the last 50 years or so, however, as humans have over-extracted, dammed, diverted and polluted the planet’s finite supplies of freshwater, the issue of water services inequality has grown at an alarming rate.

While some have all the water they want for golf courses, swimming pools, and fountains, billions live with the daily scourge of dirty water.

The combination of growing inequality, rising water prices, and clean water scarcity has led to a human rights crisis of such scale that half the population of the planet does not have access to warm water and soap during a global pandemic.

While the crisis is worse in countries and communities of the Global South, millions in Europe and North America also do not have access to clean drinking water and sanitation services. A global water justice movement was formed in the late 1990s to fight for water equality and against the privatization and commodification of water. A consensus goal of the many groups involved was to have the United Nations formally recognize the human right to water.

On July 28, 2010, Bolivian UN ambassador Pablo Solon challenged the General Assembly of the United Nations to recognize the rights to water and sanitation as “essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.”

The water justice movement was unsure of how the General Assembly would vote. Many important Global North countries – including Canada, the United States and Great Britain as well as the World Bank, the World Water Council, and many powerful bottled water and water utility corporations – were opposed. They defined water as a “need” that could be met by government  welfare, aid agencies, and charities.

The water justice groups argued that water is a fundamental right, and access to water and sanitation is therefore an issue of justice, not charity.

The vote was overwhelmingly positive: 122 countries voted in favour and 41 abstained. No country voted against. Two months later, the UN Human Rights Council laid out in clear language what the new resolution meant and the obligations it placed on governments.

Since then, every member nation of the United Nations has recognized the human rights to water and sanitation. In adopting this resolution, our global society took a collective evolutionary step forward, asserting that no one should have to watch their child die because they cannot afford clean water.

This important step forward did not magically resolve the deeply entrenched water crisis. What took decades to create will take time to address. Nevertheless, very real progress has been achieved.

Dozens of countries have either amended their constitutions or introduced new laws to affirm the human right to water. They have implemented a plan of action to provide safe drinking water and sanitation to their people.

The UN resolution has also been cited in a number of important legal cases against water cut-offs and other forms of water injustice. It was used successfully by the San People of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert in a court case to allow them access to their bore wells, which had been forcibly shut off by the government. It was the basis for the European Citizens’ Initiative that got the European Parliament to formally recognize water as “a public good vital for human life.”

The fight for the human rights to water and sanitation has never been more important, and education about it is one of the founding purposes of the Blue Schools Network initiative.