Human Rights to Water and Sanitation: Finding Common Ground on the Scope of Obligations

Ellen Spannagel

By: Ellen Spannagel

In my work as an intern with Forum for Human Rights, an organization that focuses on international human rights litigation and advocacy and Central Europe, I have been helping with a submission centered on the human rights to water and sanitation. The rights to safe drinking water and sanitation are derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, a right that is enshrined in several human rights instruments that are ratified by Canada, including the ICESCR, CEDAW, CRPD, and the CRC.

In my research, I found that violations of the rights to safe drinking water and sanitation are typically related to violations of other rights, including the right to health (highest attainable standard of health), housing (also part of the right to an adequate standard of living), and the principle of non-discrimination, among others. This bolsters the notion that human rights are interdependent and interrelated: these are rights that can only be upheld so long as the others are upheld.

This theme of interdependence is prominent within United Nations (UN) treaty bodies and throughout the comments of UN Special Rapporteurs. For example, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha, has specified that housing that does not provide adequate water and sanitation can give rise to a situation of homelessness, a fundamental breach of the right to housing. The interrelatedness of these rights is also prominent among regional courts. For example, in Öneryildiz v. Turkey, a community was devasted by the explosion of a landfill, and the European Court of Human Rights held that waste disposal, and its impacts on health, were intricately related to the right to life and that there is “positive obligation on States to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of those within their jurisdiction.”

While this makes it easy to link rights such as the human rights to water and sanitation to the violations of other rights, it sometimes makes it difficult to identify the specific obligations states have in fulfilling these rights at a normative level. For example, in the recent judgement Hudorovic and Others v. Slovenia, which considered whether Slovenia violated obligations to provide the Roma applicants with adequate access to drinking water and sanitation, the European Court of Human Rights acknowledged that it is “necessary to take into account the vulnerable and disadvantaged position of the Roma population”  in the context of several rights, such as the right to life. However, the court ultimately ruled that that the State had fulfilled their positive obligations to provide access to utilities to the applicants, despite evidence of existing lack of access to adequate water and sanitation. This contradicts the comments made by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing and raises questions about the scope of obligations where a multiplicity of interrelated rights are at play. Questions about the level of access (whether water must be provided directly into the home) and affordability (how much it should cost to remain connected to a public water supply) remain unanswered and highlight whether human rights as they currently exist are best positioned to tackle these issues.

In Europe, water-related issues (access to safe drinking water, access to sewage) and waste issues (uncontrolled dumpsites and landfills) are common situations of environmental racism that particularly affect Roma communities.  When I reflect on the state of affairs where I live, I am immediately reminded of the long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities, and its relationship to other issues such as adequate housing and food security.

The human rights to water and sanitation are especially important in the context of the climate crisis. While it is important that international and regional bodies recognize the interdependence of these rights to other rights such as the right to housing, without stricter judicial review, and a more specific framework establishing how these rights should play out on the ground, States will be absolved of responsibilities in ensuring these rights for communities that are structurally disadvantaged. Finding a common ground on the scope of obligations for these various interrelated rights, particularly in situations of persistent structural inequality, will be integral moving forward.

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