Water and Sanitation: A matter of rights, even in times of emergency, says UN Expert


On the occasion of World Water Day (22 March), the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, expresses her particular concern about access to water and sanitation during emergencies.

"The chaos and insecurity caused by war and natural disasters frequently block access to water and sanitation, with devastating results," said the Independent Expert. The failure to protect access to safe drinking water and sanitation during times of emergency violates human rights. "Economic, social and cultural rights, including those related to water and sanitation, are always applicable, and States may not excuse themselves from respecting them during times of emergency."

The Red Cross estimates that about a quarter of the people without access to safe drinking water, and 15% of those without access to sanitation find themselves in countries ravaged by war. Cholera, diarrhoea and other deadly diseases spread with a ferocity that is difficult to control during times of emergency.

International humanitarian law also prohibits attacking, destroying, or removing "objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as ... drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works." Yet, during conflict, "it is all too common to see fundamental water and sanitation services destroyed, and populations denied access to drinking water and sanitation for deadly periods of time," remarked the Independent Expert.

Tragically, combatants sometimes block or otherwise obstruct essential humanitarian aid, including provision of safe drinking water, with potentially fatal consequences. Ensuring that refugee and IDP camps have appropriate water and sanitation services is also crucial.

The Independent Expert calls upon States and the international community to ensure access to safe drinking water and sanitation for people affected by conflict and natural disasters. They must take immediate action to rebuild appropriate facilities and to ensure access for humanitarian actors. States and the international community also must prevent the spread of disease by prioritizing safe drinking water and sanitation during and in the aftermath of an emergency.

The Independent Expert especially commends the dedication, courage and commitment of humanitarian workers, including those working with non-governmental organizations, who are at the forefront of these life-saving interventions.

884 million people in the world lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion do not have access to basic sanitation. "Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, those who suffer the most from lack of access to water and sanitation, are the poorest, the most marginalized and the most vulnerable," asserts Ms. de Albuquerque, noting in particular the situation of women, children, and persons with disabilities. Globally, 1.6 million people, mostly children, die each year from water and sanitation related causes.

Ms. de Albuquerque began her work as Independent Expert in November 2008 and she reports annually to the UN Human Rights Council. She currently works as a senior legal adviser at the Office for Documentation and Comparative Law (an independent institution under the Portuguese Prosecutor General's Office) in the area of human rights.

For more information on the work and mandate of the Independent Expert, please visit: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/water/iexpert/index.htm