Making the human rights to water and sanitation a reality

The IWA has developed a manual for practitioners to explain what service providers, municipalities and other sector professionals need to do in order to realise the rights to water and sanitation to ensure that everyone has access to these essential services.

By Catarina de Albuquerque

I came into this sector in 2009 as UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation, new to the sector, a lawyer who had worked all my life with human rights. Luckily for me, I, and my sometimes challenging ideas, were welcomed, and given as much opportunity to learn as to preach.

I arrived in the middle of a time of self-questioning for the water and sanitation sector. The excellent analytical work of the JMP and GLAAS was starting to show us that while we were on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals target on water, we were not managing to make a difference in the lives of those people who were most disadvantaged, who were suffering poverty and discrimination in multiple areas of their lives.

My position as Special Rapporteur gave a voice and institutional substance to these discussions, and made it possible to lobby for human rights principles as key to resolving the lack of transparency, the corrupt practices, the discriminatory approaches, the terrible impact of deep inequalities on individuals as well as on society more broadly.

The water and sanitation sector has travelled a great distance in the last eight to ten years. I don’t believe that anyone, not even technocrats, still believe it is possible to ensure access to services through technology or hardware alone, or even through simply more financing. Solutions have to be grounded in economic, social and cultural contexts and realities. The IWA and its members are willing to move towards a more nuanced understanding of the challenge ahead of us. Ensuring universal access to water and sanitation means examining who does not have access to these services and why.

Since completing my mandate as Special Rapporteur in December 2014, I have had the opportunity of learning how to put these human rights principles into practice within the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) Global Partnership. As the IWA knows, as a partner of SWA, we strongly support the spirit and essence of the Sustainable Development Goals, and we are particularly keen, in working with all our partners, from government to development practitioners and researchers to civil society actors to find ways to ‘leave no-one behind’.

This will still require service providers to consider the functionality of the services they provide – but also why people with disabilities or women with young children are not gaining access to services as quickly as those who occupy a more powerful social position. This may also require that service providers, together with the relevant local authority, identify the causes of unpaid water bills and find ways of ensuring that the poorest are not excluded from this fundamental service through lack of affordability.

We all need to consider how to overcome social practices that lead to women being responsible for bringing water to the home, and finding ways to alleviate this burden in ways that are productive for those women. It means searching for better solutions for ensuring sustainable solutions for sanitation in schools.

At SWA there is a strong emphasis on accountability, of putting together systems that lead to more effective processes, and to achieve this through our partners, SWA has developed four collaborative behaviours – to which all of you can and should contribute to support countries’ governments deliver on their obligations. These are:

1.    Enhance government leadership of sector planning processes

2.    Strengthen and use country systems

3.    Use one information and mutual accountability platform built around a multi-stakeholder, government-led cycle of planning, monitoring and learning

4.    Build sustainable water and sanitation sector financing strategies that incorporate financial data on all 3Ts (taxes, tariffs and transfers), as well as estimates for non-tariff household expenditure

SWA is a partnership, first and foremost, and these behaviours are central to achieving our goals, but are also key to cementing this partnership. As an organisation of 10,000 members, carrying out essential work all over the globe, I encourage you as IWA, institutionally as well as in your capacity as individual members, to engage more closely with SWA.

IWA members are delivering an enormous range of services, from designing public policy, to finding financing solutions, to delivering sanitation and water services to millions and millions of people in all corners of the world. I urge you to join hands with us, to strengthen the work of SWA in finding solutions that work, through the collaborative behaviours and through international, national and local cooperation.


Catarina de Albuquerque is the Executive Chair of Sanitation and Water for All. She recently won the IWA Global Water Award for the exceptional role she has played as the driving force behind the recognition of the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation.