Drinking water and sanitation are human rights. So what?

Though safe drinking water and sanitation are recognised by the UN as human rights, millions of people around the world still lack these basic services. WaterAid's Louisa Gosling asks why.


16 Oct 2013

Many of us take safe drinking water and sanitation for granted. For most people in richer countries, they are such basic functions, such essential facilities, and so widely available, that we can hardly imagine life without them.

No safe water, no toilets

But right now, 768 million people still don't have access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion are still living without sanitation and hygiene. This is keeping them trapped in poverty.

Without these basics, other human rights to dignity, health, education and livelihoods are compromised on a daily basis:

  • It is almost impossible to stay healthy
  • If people have to spend hours collecting water, they have little time to go to school or earn a living
  • Adolescent girls miss out on education if there is no way to manage their menstrual hygiene at school
  • When people can't keep themselves clean, they can be discriminated against or socially excluded
  • If people living with disabilities cannot access toilets, it seriously limits their daily lives

Safe water and sanitation for all

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

We should all have enough water to drink, cook with and wash ourselves with. We should all be able to use a toilet in safety and with dignity whenever we need to.

But if safe water and sanitation are already human rights, what more must be done to see them realised?

We all have a role

  • Governments have an obligation to progressively realise the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. These services don't have to be free of charge but they do have to be affordable, accessible, adequate, safe, acceptable and non-discriminatory. This does not mean that governments need to provide the services themselves, but they do need to make sure that someone does.
  • Non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, the private sector and others have a responsibility to deliver water and sanitation services that respect human rights.
  • Users of water and sanitation services have responsibilities not to violate the rights of others, for example by excluding them from access or polluting water sources.

Making sure the rights to safe water and sanitation are realised is a huge challenge. We all need to work together, combining our different areas of expertise and experience, to make sure that these most basic of human rights really are universal.