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ACCESS TO SAFE WATER IS A FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT

NOVEMBER 28, 2014 By: Bankole Clifford Ekundayo Morgan, Human Rights Advocate

(The thoughts expressed in this article are purely and entirely those of the author)

International human rights law recognizes access to safe water as a fundamental human need and therefore a basic human right which ought to be enjoyed by all without discrimination. The right to water identifies certain obligations and responsibilities of states towards their residents. States as duty-bearers and service providers should ensure the provision of safe water: private individuals as rights holders and consumers should be responsible enough and make sure that the right to water is not abused, through wastage and contamination of water sources and catchment areas.

The right to water to satisfy basic human needs for personal and domestic uses is protected under international human rights law, through a wide range of international human rights documents including the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, Art.14(2)), the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, Art.24), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, Art.11 & 12). In terms of the main resolutions of the right to water, they were passed by the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions both in 2010.

Usually when a country appends its signature to human rights documents, it is mandatory for that country to take proactive measures in domesticating those documents. These human rights documents therefore place the main responsibilities upon governments to ensure that people enjoy safe water. Sierra Leone as a state has signed and ratified the above human rights treaties and therefore must ensure that this right to water is enjoyed.

ACCESS TO SAFE WATER FACILITY IS FUNDAMENTAL FOR LIFE, FOR HEALTH & FOR DIGNITY

Access to safe water is fundamental for life, for health, for dignity, empowerment and prosperity. Water is also fundamental to fulfil many of the most basic human needs: people need water to avoid dehydration, for the preparation of food, for personal hygiene, menstrual hygiene and to wash hands before eating or after using the toilet. Clean drinking water is very important in the fulfilment of the right to health and many other related rights such as, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to adequate housing, the right to education, and to the fulfilment of many other rights. Without the availability of water in the toilet, there is the propensity for infectious disease to spread rapidly and affect the health and wellbeing of a society.

Human rights to water do not call for services to be free of charge but access to water must be affordable for everyone and paying for water service must not be expensive. Affordability of water service as well as associated hygiene must ensure people are not forced to resort to other unsafe alternatives. Services must be affordable for all, which automatically includes the need to develop tariff systems and subsidies. Government should also ensure that the service charges for water are affordable and pipe connections should be kept uninterrupted and secured. Correspondingly, service users should ensure that the pay their bills to enhance efficient use of the water facility. Prompt payment of bills for water supply by service users is the responsible side of human rights. In general rights go with responsibility.

THE RIGHT TO WATER IS A LEGAL ENTILEMENT NOT A CHARITY

The right to water confirms that access to minimum essential supplies of safe water is a legal entitlement and not a charity or moral priority. States are obliged by the international legal instruments they have adopted to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for everyone. This is the primary strength of a human rights approach as governments have already voluntarily signed up to these obligations, providing a firm foundation for advocacy and policy formulation.

This implies that progressive realisation of rights demands that states take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps towards fully realising Covenant rights as expeditiously and effectively as possible and using the maximum available resources. States should establish service levels and prioritise firstly the achievement of a basic service level for all. The obligation to focus on the most marginalised and vulnerable is crucial for progressive realisation to bring about progress where it is most needed. Also, the principle of ‘non-retrogression’ means that any intentional or unintentional backward steps, such as acts or omissions that deprive people of the rights to water at the level they used to enjoy them, are generally prohibited. This may include for example the cutting of subsidies for the Ministry of Water Resources.

“SUSTAINABILITY, AVAILABILITY & ACCESSABILITY” ARE VITAL TO THE RIGHT TO WATER

In the enjoyment of the right to water, the three words “Sustainability, Availability & Accessibility” are very vital. Sustainability in the sense that the right to water ought to be realised for present and for future generations. States must ensure that the facilities and services of water supply are socially, environmentally and economically sustainable. Sufficient attention must be paid to operation and maintenance to make sure that facilities do not break down or are not effective. In order to ensure that there is enough available water for people to drink, clean and wash themselves, even in times of drought and increasing water scarcity and climate change, prioritisation of water for domestic use is critical. The government, through the Ministry of Water Resources, must ensure that they plan sustainable service provision so that everyone can enjoy a minimum level of services in the years to come, also when resources are constrained, for example during time of an outbreak like presently the “Ebola virus”.

The availability of water supply rests on the government, which is the service provider. Government, through the Ministry of Water Resources, should ensure that water is available for everyone in the household or its immediate vicinity, in sufficient quantity and on a continuous basis, for personal and domestic use. This includes drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, personal and household hygiene. Government must provide sufficient number of water outlet facilities to ensure that the needs of the people are met and collection and waiting times are not unreasonably long.

From my monitoring of the right to water in Freetown, I have observed that physical accessibilityof water supply is quite challenging. Government, through the Ministry of Water Resources, should ensure that water infrastructure must be constructed and located in a way so that facilities are accessible and affordable for everyone at all times. Government should try to have effective pipe-borne water supply to be right across the country. The government, through the Ministry of Water Resources, should also take into cognisance people with particular needs, such as women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities or chronically ill persons. The facilities must be safe to use for all users, participation is therefore crucial in order to design the facilities needed and built them on the most convenient location.

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