1.2.4 “For 2012, clarify the scope of the internationally-recognised Human Right to Sanitation taking into account national experiences, and publish 1 document highlighting the practical implications of the Right to Sanitation for practitioners.”
The United Nations has recognised last year the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, even though some discussion still exists about its legal status. Although recognition is important, its implementation is the ultimate goal, which depends on making available information about the practical content of this new human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.
At this stage, the most-advanced documents are the reports of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, which clarifies many characteristics of this right.
These documents focus, however, on a very high level analysis and do not provide enough practical guidance for decision-makers and practitioners to move forward. A State or a municipality does not clearly know the type of obligation it has to perform in order to fully implement this right.
This is a major driver for discussion and action in the preparatory process to the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille. And this is also a good opportunity to organise a debate and explore possibilities through discussing satisfactory real situations and to increase the interaction between human rights specialists and water specialists.
The goal of this Target 4 is to identify and suggest practices to materialize that scope. The challenge is to debate, identify solutions and reach commitments that will enable progress from the current situation towards a clearer understanding of the practical content of the right to sanitation.
1. Meaning and scope of the right to sanitation
Even though there is no single definition of the term «sanitation», for the purpose of the discussion about the human right to sanitation, a possible definition would be: the collection, transport, treatment and disposal or reuse of human excreta or domestic wastewater, whether by traditional or simplified collective systems or by installations serving a single household, appropriate to protect the environment and human health.
The debate around the right to sanitation began with the question whether it is a distinct human right or whether the obligations related to access to sanitation are derived from other human rights.
In fact, access to sanitation is not recognized by international treaties as a right per se, but is closely related to several human rights protected by international legal instruments, such as the right to an adequate standard of living, adequate housing, health, education, work, life, physical security, the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment, gender equality, and the prohibition against discrimination, that include explicit or implicit obligations in relation to access to sanitation.
Nevertheless, more than a condition to the above mentioned rights, access to sanitation is intrinsically related to the concept of human dignity and includes aspects that transcend those rights, which can be argued as a reason for its autonomous recognition. Resolution 64/292, approved by the UN General Assembly on the 28th July 2010, reveals the trend towards the recognition by the international community of the right to sanitation as a distinct right, that has to be addressed as a fundamental need of every individual.
Given the impact of wastewater and excreta on public health and the environment, which affects every individual, it is not sufficient to collect the wastewater or remove the excreta, but also to treat it adequately, preventing contamination of the environment and consequently safeguarding the human health. Therefore, the right to sanitation can be understood as the right of everyone to have access to adequate, condign and safe sanitation that is conducive to the protection of the environment and public health.
The content of the right to sanitation is defined through a set of criteria:
- Availability – sanitation facilities (individual or shared) must be available in a sufficient number within, or in the immediate vicinity, of each household, health or educational institution, public institutions and places, and the workplace.
- Quality – sanitation facilities must be hygienically safe to use and guarantee safe disposal of excreta.
- Physical accessibility – sanitation facilities and services must be physically accessible for everyone within, or in the immediate vicinity of, each household, health or educational institution, public institutions and places, and the workplace, in terms of distance, safety and convenience even for disabled people.
- Affordability – access to sanitation facilities and services should be available at an affordable price for all, not compromising the ability to pay for other essential needs guaranteed by human rights such as food, housing and health care.
- Acceptability – sanitation facilities must be culturally acceptable, which may require that they ensure privacy and/or are gender-specific.
The fulfilment of these criteria must be interpreted according to the economic conditions of each country and region. In some countries or regions it is not possible to provide access to a sewerage system, or individual facilities in every home, and other appropriate shared solutions may be adequate.
In addition to the above mentioned criteria, three other should be referred, that are cross-cutting to all human rights:
- Non-discrimination – access to sanitation must be ensured to everyone including the most marginalized groups, such as inhabitants of rural and deprived urban areas, homeless, nomadic and traveller communities, refugees, migrants, etc.
- Participation – there should be effective participation of citizens in the decision-making processes that may affect their right to sanitation.
- Accountability – the progresses made in the implementation of the right to sanitation should be monitored and publicly reported. Additionally, citizens should have access to effective, accessible, affordable and timely legal remedies for any breaches of their right to sanitation.
- Being included in the category of economic, social and cultural rights, the right to sanitation implies mostly obligations of the States towards citizens that can be divided in three categories: The obligation to respect, i.e., to refrain from measures that may threaten or limits the access to sanitation.
- The obligation to protect, i.e., to take the appropriate measures to prevent or refrain third parties to threaten or limit access to sanitation. States should ensure that service operators, either public or private, do not compromise equal, affordable and physically accessible sanitation of a good quality.
- The obligation to fulfil, i.e. to facilitate and promote universal access to sanitation. It can be disaggregated into the obligations to facilitate, promote and provide. The obligation to facilitate requires States to take positive measures to assist individuals to access sanitation. The obligation to promote obliges the States to take steps to ensure that there is appropriate education about hygiene, notably concerning hygienic use of water and the protection of water. The obligation to provide demands that States ensure access to sanitation for individuals when they are unable, for reasons beyond their control, to do so themselves and through the means at their disposal. Overall, public resources should prioritize those without basic access to sanitation, rather than those who already have some sort of access.
2. Measures to comply with this target
As referred previously, adequate services of sanitation, together with water supply, are essential to achieve a sustainable development of the societies, all over the world, with general well-being, public health, collective security and environment protection.
However, the situation of sanitation in many regions in the world is still far from acceptable, with low levels of coverage and lack of global organization in the sector. The Millennium Development Goals, approved by the UN General Assembly in year 2000, establish clear targets for sanitation that are far from being achieved.
One of reasons is the usual practice of implementation of casuistic and sometimes incoherent measures by the States, instead of a global, holistic and sustainable sector organization. The main results are, in general, lack of clear national strategy, lack of financial resources, lack of infrastructures, poor quality of services, lack of skilled human resources and difficulty to respond to health and environmental standards.
To comply with this target to guarantee sustainable development of sanitation, States must undertake a strong political commitment to implement a set of measures at global level on a comprehensive, holistic and adequate approach, including the following aspects:
- Defining a clear strategy for the sector, approaching together water supply and sanitation, embodied in a national or regional water services strategic plan properly articulated with urban and rural planning, with clear targets to serve the population.
- Clarifying the institutional framework, by defining the responsibilities of various entities regarding sanitation, namely the service providers at local, regional or even national levels, the regulatory authority and the health and environment authorities.
- Introducing a regulatory authority as an important tool to improve effectiveness and efficiency by management and reduce risks to consumers, with the provision of quality services at socially acceptable prices, due to the fact that these services are local or regional monopolies with no competition.
- Defining adequate governance models for those services, according political orientations, which can include direct, delegated and concessional management, with public and eventually private participation.
- Creating a new legal framework, with an appropriate and comprehensive legal regime for the sanitation services, reflecting the sector’s organization model (institutional, regulatory, governance models) and defining rules for all stakeholders (public administration, public and private service providers, users and citizens).
- Promoting territorial reorganization, searching the optimal territorial units, with a trend to regional systems and greater economies of scale, scope and process, to reduce costs for the consumers and the society in general.
- Gathering the necessary financial resources for infrastructure, with consistent investment policies and a good use of external funds, optimizing the benefits for the society.
- Building adequate infrastructures, applying the most appropriate technologies according local characteristics, culture and economic capacity, to guarantee the best asset management for the future.
- Clearly defining service quality objectives, with annual monitoring by the providers and the regulatory authority to promote efficiency and quality of service, focused on the protection of the consumers interests, sustainability of the provider and environmental sustainability of the service.
- Promoting an adequate level of cost recovery, balancing tariffs, taxes and transfers, according the economic capacity of the populations, with the gradual implementation of adequate tariff models, to guaranty economic and financial sustainability of the services.
- Promoting national policies to achieve tariffs affordability based on an indicator of affordability limiting to an acceptable value the relation between the annual bill for a typical family by the annual income for a typical family in the region; when necessary, a “tariff harmonization fund” can be a tool to avoid too high tariffs in some rural regions based on a solidarity scheme from the urban areas.
- Capacity building of the service providers, with adequate number and qualified human resources at higher, medium and lower level.Promoting relevant research and development, with greater approximation of research centers to local industry, to minimize long term external dependence.
- Respond to health and environmental national or local standards.
- Creating awareness campaigns that promote environmentally sound practices by all stakeholders.
- Implement adequate and effective procedures for dealing with complaints from users, including alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.
The State must promote the effective participation of all stakeholders (the administration, the regulatory authority, the state, regional and or municipal public providers and eventually private providers, design and consulting companies, construction companies, manufacturers and suppliers of materials, equipment and products, surveillance companies, analytical and testing laboratories, quality management companies, centres for research, development and training, consumers associations, non-governmental related agencies and, of course, national and international funding organizations) on the definition and implementation of the sector’s organization.
Additionally to the previous general measures, specific measures to the protection of the consumers must be included in the national legislation or local codes of practice and must deserve a special emphasis by the providers.
For instance, when a public sewer system is available, the provider must fulfil the citizen’s right:
- to be served when public system is available, when located less than an explicit distance;
- to be connected to the public system within a short period after subscription request;
- to have a continuous (24h x 365 days) service, which can be interrupted only due to strong technical reasons or lack of payment after due diligence procedures;
- not to pay autonomous charges for service subscription and connection to the network, whose costs must be included in the general tariff, avoiding the situation where those costs can be an obstacle to the access to sanitation for some families;
- to have access to clear and adequate information about the conditions of the service provision (provider identification, contract content, tariffs and quality of service).
When a public sewer system is not available, the provider must ensure that the citizens benefit from:
- clear policies regarding individual or shared solutions for sanitation, for instance septic tanks;
- technical support from qualified technicians in order to implement the adequate individual or shared solutions;
- clear procedures related with periodic sludge removal and transport from septic tanks for adequate final destination (ex. wastewater treatment plants) by the service provider or authorized private operators.
In any case, with or without availability of public sewer system, specific measures to protect poor and or large families must have a special emphasis on:
- the right for the poor families to benefit from a social tariff;
- the right for large families to benefit from a family tariff.
In public areas, mainly in more dense settlements, proper dispositions should be put in place to ensure:
- the existence of public water and sanitation facilities, for instance in central places or in public buildings, to serve pedestrians;
- the existence of public spaces with water and sanitation facilities for occasional events, for instance to serve nomad populations and travelers, local fairs and cultural and religious occasions.
 The resolutions adopted by this organ are simple recommendations to its Members and therefore cannot be considered as binding rules, neither in international or internal law.
Key organisations :