Social inclusion and water: Why a human rights based approach matters
BRATISLAVA, Slovak Republic – 1 October 2010 – Katy Norman and Jürg Staudenmann use experiences from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo (UNSC Resolution 1244) and Tajikistan to call for the closer integration of access-to water and social-inclusion agendas. Read: issue 15 of Development and Transition devoted to the theme of social inclusion.
‘Exclusion from clean water and basic sanitation destroys more lives than any war or terrorist act.’
Lack or denial of access to safe waterand basic sanitary services ultimately leads to exclusion on other domains, such as education or health. A child unable to attend school due to frequent, waterborne bouts of diarrhea, or because the school sanitary infrastructure is deemed unsuitable, experiences social exclusion. Water is both critical for life and human development.
UNDP’s 2006 Human Development Report therefore emphatically urged the world to ‘make water a human right – and mean it’.
The right to water is an internationally recognized legal entitlement for all people, and requires that they have reliable access to safe potable water at an affordable price, regardless of their age, sex, race, gender, or ethnicity.
International acknowledgement is apparent in the increasing number of regional treaties, national legislations and constitutions that confirm the right, the legally binding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that implicitly recognizes the right as part of an adequate standard of living, and non-binding statements, such as the UN ‘Common Understanding’ on the human rights-based approach that helped conceptually clarify the right within the UN and wider development community.
Yet, many countries lack enforcement mechanisms to realize the right, and have insufficient monitoring bodies to ensure the equitable implementation of water policies and provide redress for violations.
Social inclusion and human rights: congruent development frameworks
The adoption of General Comment no.15: The Right to Water (2002) by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights laid the foundations for integrating a human rights-based approach into the UN’s development philosophy. The human rights-based approach employs human rights as instruments to redress discrimination and unjust distributions of power that impede development. The human rights-based approach emphasizes the importance of water-related development for marginalized and vulnerable groups, which are commonly also the socially excluded.
This contrasts with the status quo in many developing countries, where public resources finance infrastructure construction and subsidies that benefit upper- and middle-income groups primarily; often at additional expense to the poor. Accountability, which is central to the human rights-based approach, is also integral to social inclusion through the attention paid to the excluded and excluders alike.
Applied to water governance, a human rights-based approach aims to achieve ‘sufficient, safe, acceptable...and affordable water for personal and domestic uses’ for all. It transcends the Goal (Millennium Development MDG) 7 target of reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water, by calling for universal service coverage.
It provides a conceptual tool to address water supply and sanitation-related exclusion issues that are commonly rooted in weak governance, power inequality and poverty, rather than sheer physical availability. That Tajikistan is one of the world’s most ‘water wealthy’ states (with 13,000 cubic metres of water available per capita), but only 59 percent of its population has access to drinking water, is a case in point.
Water supply and sanitation in Europe and Central Asia: case studies
Water and sanitation infrastructure in a number of transition and developing economies in Europe and Central Asia is in a critical state and deteriorating, with concomitant threats to human health and dignity.
Yet, most countries have signed or ratified core UN human rights conventions; many regional treaties implicitly or explicitly recognize the right to water; and national recognition in this regard is mounting. Such legal frameworks create the enabling environments needed for the application of a human rights-based approach to water governance issues.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Kravice Trebižat river Bosnia and Herzegovina
Before the civil war (1992-1995), an estimated 60 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population was served by safe water supply systems, including 90 percent of urban areas and 40 percent of rural areas. However, war damage coupled with improper infrastructure maintenance resulted in large network leakages. As a result, public water utilities cover only 54 percent of the total population (56 percent coverage in the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina (FBH) and 48 percent in Republic of Srpska (RS)); well below the EU 90 percent average.
Water infrastructure capacity is being overwhelmed by large returnee populations. Approximately 125,000 internally displaced persons do not have reliable access to sufficient, affordable, potable water. Most internally displaced persons are marginalized in the Sarajevo (23,665) and Banja Luka (12,627) municipalities. The lack of an official place of residence or a building license is accepted as an excuse for not granting access to safe water. The 60,000 Roma are also cut off for similar reasons in the informal settlements where they reside. Access to drinking water within/in close proximity to schools in rural areas and housing units of disabled persons is also limited compared to that for other persons. Besides degrading infrastructure, water policies are largely to blame. Fragmentation and confusion across different state institutions mitigate against the promulgation of clearly defined roles and responsibilities, while inadequate public awareness regarding the right to water further complicates the situation.
|Central Asia, Region Pamir Alai, Fan Mountains|
Most water supply systems in Tajikistan were constructed between 1960 and 1980 with an operational life of 30-50 years, and are increasingly in need of replacement. The transition from the Soviet era, which was characterized by a well-managed and heavily subsidized water supply and distribution network, over the past 10-15 years has exacerbated this need, as water systems have received increasingly less maintenance and are starting to fail as a result. Noncentralized water supply and sewage systems of former kolkhozy (collective farms) remain ownerless, which has led to their collapse in rural areas. With a mere 20 percent of citizens connected to the centralized water network, most of the rural population depends on shallow self-dug wells, frequently contaminated with agro-pollutants and animal waste. Rapid population growth over the past two decades is placing a further strain on the water supply systems, which is not satisfying the increasing demand.
An estimated 87 percent of urban residents receive water from the central network, but such a high connectivity figure masks the fact that untreated water flows into the pipes. In fact, 41 percent of water consumed from public utilities is not potable, threatening human health and creating tensions that increase the risk of social exclusion.
Tasked with carrying water from source to house, women and girls are marginalized within society. With primary male household members absent, having migrated abroad for work, women (especially in rural areas) are left behind with inadequate water supply and sanitation services, which restrict their inclusion in the domestic labour market and threaten family health. Children are the most frequent victims of gastric and intestinal infections caused by contaminated water. More than 50 percent of schools cannot provide access to piped, safe drinking water, impeding children’s right to health and education. High rates of non-payment for water and sanitation services are reducing funds for operation and maintenance, let alone reinvestment. There is a clear need to tackle old utility and consumer perceptions of water conservation and management being the sole responsibility of the public hand and instill a sense of joint ownership, responsibility and interest in management of the country’s abundant water resources.
Kosovo – hereafter referred to in the context of the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999)
Article 5(j) of Kosovo’s Law on Water (pdf) 2004/24 provides that ‘all persons have equal and proportional rights to Water Use according to this law’; but this rhetoric is not yet reality. Some 60 percent of the population of Kosovo covered by the seven regional water companies are connected to a centralized water supply system. The remaining 40 percent (860,000 persons) reside in 200 rural villages, and rely on water from often contaminated wells. Indirect discrimination against members of minority communities remains significant, aggravating their access to water, sanitation and other public services. For example, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian (one percent of the population) live in camps without access to basic sanitation or water facilities; while Goran (two percent) living in the Dragash municipality in the south have sufficient water, but of a very poor quality.
In contrast, the Serbian ethnic minority (seven percent) are positively discriminated against when it comes to their right to water. In many parts of Kosovo, Serbian households through their institutions (municipalities and organizations) have refused to recognize Kosovo institutions as legitimate partners. They overwhelmingly do not pay for their water supply, tend to use it liberally, and yet continue to be serviced. While from a human rights approach perspective, this is a commendable example of the Kosovo authorities fulfilling their obligation to ‘respect, protect and fulfill’ no matter who receives the water, Kosovo Albanians are left to pick up the costs. This leaves a perception of double standards, which does little to resolve tensions between the two groups - and may ultimately reinforce Serbian social exclusion. Weak water governance due to ill-defined roles and responsibilities, stemming from contradictory provisions in national law, are largely to blame.
Water governance tends to be a missing link in social inclusion agendas, perhaps because it is perceived as a predominantly technical (‘infrastructural’), rather than a social (‘governance’) issue. But the cases of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tajikistan and Kosovo illustrate that questions of access to water and sanitation services are very much questions of governance. Not only does social exclusion lead to deprivation in terms of water supply and sanitation services, but the reverse is also true: inadequate access can reinforce social exclusion in a two-way process. Improving marginalized and vulnerable groups’ access to services and decision-making in the water sector through a human rights based approach is both an end in itself and a direct means of strengthening inclusion in other spheres of life, namely education, health and the workplace.
Thus, a human rights based approach on water matters to social inclusion, and the human development agenda at large: water governance, drinking water and sanitation issues therefore need to be better embedded in social inclusion agendas.
Written by: Katy Norman and Jürg Staudenmann
Must see publications
Renewable Energy ChallengeFollow the story of UNDP's first challenge prize - issued to find a renewable energy solution that can provide off-grid power to cover the needs of returnee families in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
See our latest infographics
Energy Challenges in Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Get to know our experts