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Access to Water and Sanitation

The Right to Water - 1

Christophe GOLAY

11 / 2009

The question of access to water and to sanitation is a particularly complex one. While one might think that the “blue planet” possesses sufficiently large resources to satisfy all our needs for water, the reality is very different (1). Because the various uses of water compete with each other (2) and the provision of water to satisfy essential human needs is not given priority over other uses, we have a situation today in which a billion people have no access to safe drinking water or to sanitation (3).

a) Water and life on the “blue planet”

Water, including saltwater and freshwater, makes up 70% of the Earth’s surface; it is contained within the oceans, the ice-caps, icebergs, snow, underground water, lakes and rivers. Its total volume comprises about 1,400 million km3. (1) This impressive volume of water is what gives the planet its blue appearance and might lead us to think that the amount available to supply the needs of humans, animals and plants is almost inexhaustible. Unfortunately this is not the case. Of the surface water on the globe, 97.5% is found in the oceans, and only 2.5% is freshwater. Of this, only an infinitely small part is useable. 70% of it is frozen inside the icecaps and the icebergs of the Antarctic and Greenland, and almost all of the rest is contained as moisture within the soil or in the great aquifers of fossil water too deep to be exploited.

In total only 42,700 km3 of freshwater are really accessible, which amounts to about 0.1% of the total freshwater and 0.003% of the total of all water on the planet. This final amount, which comes entirely from rainfall, is held in lakes, water courses and in the water table. (2) Yet, even though some of this water cannot be made use of because it is needed to dispose of wastewater, and some cannot be harnessed during floods, there is still enough water to provide for the needs of six to eight billion people. (3)

Unfortunately, this positive sounding global statistic needs to be put in perspective according to region. The fact that the available water comes entirely from precipitation means that 12 countries control three quarters of the world’s water flow - Brazil receives 6,260 km3 of rainwater every year - whereas about ten countries, in dry or desert areas, receive only 3 km3 per year. (4) The regions most affected by water shortage are North Africa and the Arab peninsula, where almost all of the countries receive less than 1000 cubic metres per year, per inhabitant, which is considered the threshold of water scarcity. (5)

b) The different uses of water and how they compete with each other today

The history of man has always been linked to water. The first brilliant civilisations from the fourth century BCE onwards, developed alongside large rivers such as the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile and the Indus. (6) Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations were already using quite complex systems of dykes, canals and dams to irrigate their land and develop agriculture. They also used the rivers as drainage systems to carry away their wastewater.

The Greeks were the first to construct pipelines over long distances to bring water to the city, and the Romans did the same using a network of aqueducts with a total length of 500 kilometres. (7)

In the earliest cities (Jericho, Babylon, Athens, Carthage, Alexandria, Rome), water management was considered an essential task and the engineers in charge of this operation held an important place within society. The importance attached to this role disappeared in the Middle Ages and the situation deteriorated over the next few centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, a number of towns suffered intolerable levels of pollution in their rivers caused by domestic waste. (8) This provoked some serious debate and it was in the middle of the 19th century that scientists proved that the quantity and flow of water were not, by themselves, sufficient to guarantee its cleanliness, and that it was only the quality of water that ensured the health of the population. (9)

The revolution in hygiene was already taking place in European towns and as the decades progressed, it brought safe drinking water and sanitation to their people. It was this revolution, based on the treatment of waste and wastewater, which was the crucial factor in reducing mortality rates in European cities at the beginning of the 20th century.

By the second half of the 19th century, water began to be used for purposes other than agriculture and domestic use: steam navigation; hydro-electric power; and industrial production. (10)

All these uses increased in the 20th century, and the consumption of water multiplied tenfold. Consumption of water in agriculture in 2000 was six times more than it had been in 1900 rising from 500 km3/year to more than 3000 km3/year, mainly as a result of the increase in world population. (11) The consumption of water for industrial and domestic use increased even more rapidly, in response to both the demographic boom and the increase in individual consumption linked to the process of urbanization and to new lifestyles - for example, it takes 280,000 litres of water to produce a ton of steel and 700 litres of water for each kilo of paper. (12)

In the 20th century, the move from traditional to mechanized agriculture, using an enormous quantity of toxic materials, (13) combined with the lack of treatment of domestic and industrial waste, (14) led to the pollution of almost all rivers and of the water table, so that the water then became unusable. (15)

In many countries, poor management of water resources diminished the supply of available waters still further by the over-exploitation of the water table. (16) The construction of reservoirs and other large projects (dams) caused not only the pollution of about 60% of the 227 largest rivers on the planet, but also, since the 1950s, the displacement of between 40-80 million people. (17)

As we begin the 21st century, intensive agriculture takes up about 60% of the world’s consumption of water, industry more than 20% and domestic consumption 10%. In addition there is the use of water for navigation and for hydro-electric power. Conflict between these different uses of water becomes more and more critical, as the quantity of available water per inhabitant diminishes.

The most significant conflict in water usage is that between town and country. Urbanization leads to an exponential increase in water consumption in the towns - it has tripled in less than 20 years - posing an enormous problem in the apportioning of resources between town and country. The new citizens very often find themselves in shanty towns or in suburbs where the provision of water and sanitation is already inadequate. In order to respond to these new needs, water has to be brought from further and further away and it is often from rural areas that water is redirected to supply the agglomerations. Demand for electricity in towns poses similar problems because the response is often to build dams in rural areas producing hydroelectric power thus decreasing the amount of water available for agriculture.

The second most important conflict is between the private and public sectors. In rural areas, village communities’ access to water is often threatened by the use of water by private enterprises, notably mining. (18) In urban areas, the objectives of private transnational companies come into conflict with those of public management of water, as we saw in the ‘water wars’ in Bolivia a few years ago. (19) At a global level, the majority of water and sanitation systems are still in public hands and contrary to certain received ideas, these still provide the “best practices found in water and sanitation provision”. (20) However, they have been privatized in several countries, for example Argentina (21), Bangladesh, Colombia, the Ivory Coast, Hungary, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Senegal, Sri Lanka and Tunisia. (22) Two companies alone, Veolia Environnement and Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, control the majority of private concessions worldwide, with the explicit aim of making a profit. In extending water supply networks, private companies increase the price of access without necessarily investing in infrastructure and maintenance, thus depriving some of the most disadvantaged people of their right to water. (23)

While these conflicts in water management certainly pose problems in terms of political choices within a country, they become almost unmanageable when it comes to the division of water resources between several states. Worldwide, there are 250 international watercourses providing water to 40% of the world’s population. These rivers are almost always over-exploited and are at the root of a number of conflicts between neighbouring States.

c) Access to water and sanitation in the world

When States have to make choices between different uses of water they rarely give priority to satisfying the fundamental needs of the most vulnerable, such as access to drinking water, to sanitation and to the water needed for subsistence agriculture. Where there is a conflict of interest, States give priority all too often to the economy and to industry, whose representatives are much more influential. In nearly all countries, the share of national budgets given to the financing of projects that aim to improve access to water and sanitation for the most vulnerable is very small. This is also true of development aid. (24)

It is principally because of these political choices that there are 1.1 billion people in the world today, who have no access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion who have no basic sanitation. (25) This situation has dramatic consequences because many diseases have a direct or indirect link with the supply and quality of water:

  • 4 billion cases of diarrhoea leading to 2.2 million deaths a year, and 10% of people living in developing countries suffering from intestinal infections;

  • 2 million deaths a year from malaria , a disease that affects nearly 100 million people;

  • 6 million people go blind following trachoma, a contagious disease of the eye;

  • 200 million people suffer from schistosomiasis, a serious parasitic disease. (26)

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) describes the affront to human dignity that this situation represents in the following manner: “‘Not having access’ to water and to sanitation is a polite euphemism for a form of deprivation that threatens life, destroys opportunity and undermines human dignity. For the poorest people (not having access to water) means that people resort to ditches, rivers and lakes polluted with human or animal excrement or used by animals. It also means not having sufficient water to meet even the most basic human needs.” (27)

The lack of dignity suffered through living in these conditions reinforces the political, economic and social exclusion of the most vulnerable groups. While providing for the basic human needs of all the inhabitants of the planet could be achieved using only a small proportion of the available water resources, priority is given to economic and industrial activities that do not respect the principles of sustainable development, are enormous consumers of water and are sources of pollution.

The apportioning of water for different purposes is therefore the result of choice and of political and economic power relationships. The UNDP report states that: “…the roots of the crisis can be traced to poverty, inequality and unequal power relationships, as well as flawed water management policies that exacerbate scarcity.” (28)

In an attempt to find a solution to the conflicts over the different uses of water, the States adopted the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses in 1997. (29) This convention is very interesting because it gives priority to the use of International Watercourses to satisfy basic human needs, including the provision of safe drinking water and water required for basic subsistence food production. (30) Unfortunately, this convention never came into force, as it did not achieve the 35 necessary ratifications.

In order to force governments to give priority to basic human needs in their budgets and in their political choices, in the last few years, the emphasis has been placed on the promotion and protection of the right to water and the right to sanitation. (31)

1 According to UNESCO the total volume of water on the planet amounts to 1,454 million km3, which is equivalent to ‘a layer of water uniformly distributed across the surface of the Earth to a depth of 2650 metres.’ Cf UNESCO, ‘Water : resources and consumption’ in UNESCO Sources, number 13, March 1990, p.6.
2 For a detailed account of the water cycle and water resources, Cf. E. Drouart, J-M. Vouillamoz, Alimentation en eau des populations menacées, Ed. Hermann, Paris, 1999, pp. 31-64.
3 J. Illueca et W. Rast note that ‘theoretically’ there is sufficient fresh water on the planet to supply the needs of about twenty billion people. Cf. J. Illucca, W. Rast, “Precious, Finite and Irreplaceable” in Our Planet (the UNEP magazine for sustainable development), volume 8, number 3, 1996, p19.
4 Worldwide the twelve ‘giants’ in terms of water resources are Brazil, Russia, Canada, China, Indonesia, the United States, Bangladesh, India, Venezuela, Burma, Colombia and Congo. Territories with less than 1 km3 of water a year include Jordan, Cyprus and Libya.
5 The Arab world, which makes up more than 4% of the world’s population, has only 0.7% of the world’s water resources.
6 H. Manéglier, Histoire de l’eau, du mythe à la pollution, Ed. F. Bourin, Paris, 1991 and R. Clarke, Water: The International Crisis, Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, 1993.
7 H. Magnélier, op.cit., p. 183.
8 H. Magnélier, op.cit., the author notes that: “la ville [Paris] s’enfonçait lentement dans ses propres déjections” (“the town [Paris] was slowly sinking in its own waste”), p. 197.
9 H. Magnélier, op.cit., p. 195 and also R. Clarke, op.cit., pp. 4-5.
10 Industrial production uses water from the rivers for cooling or cleaning.
11 The increase in worldwide consumption of water follows an almost exponential curve, which is very worrying. The worldwide consumption of water rose from 500 km3/year to 1000 km3/year between 1900 and 1940, from 1000 km3/year to 3000 km3/year between 1940 and 1980, and finally from 3000 km3/year to 5000 km3/year between 1980 and 2000. G. Mutin, “De l’eau pour tous?” in La documentation française, bimonthly n°8014, April 2000, p. 1.
12 CETRI, “L’eau, patrimoine commun de l’humanité” in Alternatives Sud, vol. 8 2001/4.
13 R. Petrella, The water manifesto: Arguments for a world water contract. London, Zed Books, 2001, pp. 29-31.
14 In the majority of industrialized countries, sewage treatment works are not able to serve the whole of the population – for example, in 2000, the figure was 66% in Canada and 52% in France. G. Mutin, « De l’eau pour tous ?", op. cit., p. 6. The situation is even more problematic in developing countries, where there is very little investment in the collection and treatment of wastewater. According to UNDP, more than 90% of wastewater in developing countries goes straight into watercourses without any treatment. UNDP, Human Development Report 1998, p76.
15 The level of pesticides is increasing in rivers and in the water table in all regions of the world. In 2000, the consequent eutrophication (degradation of the ecological equilibrium by a decrease in the amount of dissolved oxygen) affected 54% of lakes and, rivers in Asia, 53% in Europe, 48% in North America, 41% in Latin America and 28% in Africa. G. Mutin, “De l’eau pour tous?”, op. cit., p. 6.
16 This is especially the case in China, India, Mexico, Thailand, the eastern United States, North Africa and the Middle East. It is important to note that while the rivers refill within 12 days, underground water levels only return to normal levels in 5000 years. UNESCO, ‘Water: resources and consumption’ in UNESCO Sources, number 13, March 1990, p.6.
17 UNEP Report, presented at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 26th August – 4th September 2002):
18 FIAN, Identifying and Addressing Violations of the Human Right to Water. Applying the Human Rights Approach, Bread for the World, Stuttgart, 2006.
19 See Bulletin No. 22, CETIM, March 2005,
20 Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, Mr. Miloon Kothari, E/CN.4/2002/59, § 62, 1 March 2002.
21 In this country, the network is partly privatized.
22 Commission on Human Rights, Annual Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, J. Ziegler, E/CN.4/2004/10, §39, 9 February 2004.
23 Cf. notably, R. Petrella, The water manifesto: Arguments for a world water contract, op. cit.
24 UNDP, Human Development Report 2006. Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis.
25 Idem.
26 UNEP Report, presented at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 26th August – 4th September 2002), op.cit.
27 UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, op. cit., p. 5.
28 Ibid, Preface, p. v
29 This Convention was adopted in Resolution 51/229 by the General Assembly of 21 May 1997.
30 See General Assembly, Report of the Sixth Committee convening as the Working Group of the Whole, A/51/869; p. 6 and Commentary on The International Law Commission, A/CN.4/SER.A/1994/Add. 1, Part. 2.
31 See E. Riedel, P. Rothen (eds), The Human Right to Water, Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, Berlin, 2006.

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