Right to water and sanitation

What is the right to water and sanitation?

The right to water and sanitation is the right of access to a sufficient amount of safe drinking water for personal and domestic uses and access to sanitary facilities. 

note The right to water covers such uses of water that are necessary for ensuring life in dignity: drinking, washing clothes, preparing food as well as personal and household hygiene. 

Water for other uses (such as swimming pools, gardening and agriculture) is not covered by this right.

How to determine if water is adequate?

Adequate water has the following characteristics: 

1. Availability: water should be available in sufficient amounts.

2. Quality: water must be safe and not pose any threat to human health. It should be of an acceptable colour, odour and taste. 

3. Accessibility: water should be both economically and physically accessible. Thus, it should be of a reasonable price (such that would not force a person to compromise their other needs). It should be available in proximity. 

example In less developed areas, people have to walk 2-3 kilometres or even 6 just to access a public tap ¬– such a distance is clearly unreasonably long. 

Who protects this right?

As the State is the main guarantor of human rights, it must take steps towards the realisation of this right. 

More specifically, the State has three types of obligations:

1. The obligation to respect means that the State should not violate or interfere with this right. Thus, the following conduct is prohibited:

  • denying or preventing access to water
  • polluting water or otherwise worsening its quality
  • applying discriminatory practices in water allocation 

2. The obligation to protect means that the State should prevent violations by other parties. It includes: 

  • adopting relevant legislation 
  • restraining third parties from denying equal access to water 
  • preventing water pollution 

3. The obligation to fulfil requires the state to adopt a set of measures to ensure the realisation of this right. It includes:

  • adopting a national water policy
  • offering education on the hygienic use of water
  • ensuring low pricing of water (to the extent possible)

What if the State does not have enough resources?

The right to water is not the right to receive water free of charge. 

The State’s minimum obligation is to ensure access to a minimum essential quantity of adequate quality water to everyone without discrimination. 

International recognition of this right

The right to water and sanitation is not expressly recognised as a separate right, but it is implied from related rights.

The first catalogue of human rights adopted shortly after the Second World War, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provides in Article 25(1): 

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

While water is not found in the article, it is included in it as an inherent element of an adequate standard of living.  

In context


Last updated 17/05/2024