The Lancet gets it exactly right in the opinion piece below. The recent UNGA resolution enshrining water and sanitation as human rights is a step in the right direction. More importantly, it is not the enshrining of water and sanitation as human rights that is the end game, but rather the realization, the manifestation of those rights for the almost 1b without water and 2.6b without sanitation.
On July 28, the UN General Assembly adopted a nonbinding resolution calling on states and international organisations “to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all”. Water and sanitation are now enshrined as basic human rights. However, of 163 delegates from member nations who voted on this resolution, 41 abstained and did not fully endorse this right. Why?
Some delegates felt the decision to hold the vote was pre-emptive, and all countries could have reached consensus—and thereby avoided the need for a vote—if more time was allowed to interpret legal outcomes of the move for public and private suppliers. Most delegates who abstained, and some who endorsed the resolution, were anticipating a report to be published later this year by an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).
The Brazilian delegate, who voted yes, decried the absence of an “appropriate forum” to debate the resolution, and the UK’s delegate, who abstained, said that the resolution was not proposed “with consensus in mind”. Nevertheless, the justifications given by the 41 countries that abstained, including the USA, Japan, and Canada, were not convincing.
Irrespective of politicking at the UN, 884 million people worldwide do not have regular access to clean water, and 2·6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation. The 2010 Millennium Development Goal 7 report states that the target of halving the number of people without access to safe water is on course to be met by 2015, but provision of sanitation is not.
The practice of open defecation by 1·1 billion people is not only “an affront to human dignity”, but also the key source of faecal–oral transmitted diseases such as diarrhoea, which causes 1·3 million deaths per year in children younger than 5 years. A little more than 5 years through the UN General Assembly’s Water for Life Decade, adequate supply of water and sanitation is far from universal. When the HRC’s report is published, the hope is that no country obstructs a binding commitment to provide clean water and sanitation for all.