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Human rights to water and sanitation lead the way to leaving no one behind, says UN expert

21 March 2019
The call to action comes from Léo Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation for all people is not just key to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development but is a gateway to the enjoyment of multiple other human rights, says a UN rights expert. The call to action comes from the UN Special Rapporteur* on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Léo Heller, on World Water Day.

by Léo Heller**

“We aspire to a world which leaves no one behind in access to water and sanitation services. Realising these human rights will point the way to achieving the goals in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To be compliant with human rights obligations, countries must first meet the needs of those in the most vulnerable situations, reversing the traditional logic of providing services first to those who are able to pay for them.

I want to emphasise that the human rights approach can provide three concrete directions, under a ‘human-policy-driver’ framework. It brings a human face to the table, it guides governments in aligning their policies so that they focus on people in vulnerable situations, and it makes it possible to address drivers leading to violations of those rights.

Water and sanitation are basic needs for survival and are interlinked with many aspects of our lives, including health, food, education, poverty and physical security. However, about one person in three around the world still does not have access to safe drinking water, and more than half of the world’s population lack access to adequate sanitation.

Human rights are rooted in a people-centred approach. In order to ‘leave no-one behind’, we need to have everyone on board – equally and without discrimination. A human rights approach provides such a framework, prioritising the elimination of inequalities in access to water and sanitation services.

Governments struggle with juggling multiple pressing issues and priorities. Using the framework of human rights as a guide would help them to identify the highest priorities in their national water and sanitation policies. This would take into account key issues like people in vulnerable situations, and questions surrounding equality and non-discrimination, as well as participation and access to information.

The adoption of a comprehensive approach to implementing the human rights to water and sanitation will guide States in identifying those who have been left behind, and provide adequate services to them immediately, so that they can realise their human rights to water and sanitation, alongside other related rights.

States’ efforts to find adequate solutions for all will be accelerated and helped by the participation of the most vulnerable people or those most in need of help. 

Human rights are drivers of change. They can help identify obstacles to their enjoyment and highlight possible solutions – for example, by subsidising those people who cannot afford water and sanitation services.


* Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

** Léo Heller (Brazil) is the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, appointed in November 2014. He is a researcher in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil and was previously Professor of the Department of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil from 1990 to 2014.


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