Header image for news printout

Water and sanitation: A Human Right for all, even slum-dwellers and the homeless

18 March 2011

Joint Statement on Occasion of World Water Day

GENEVA - On the occasion of World Water Day, which is commemorated on 22 March 2011, the UN Independent Expert on water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, the Independent Expert on extreme poverty, Magdalena Sepúlveda, and the Special Rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, issued the following joint statement:

“With ever increasing numbers of people living in cities today, lack of access to safe and affordable water and sanitation in urban contexts is a pressing concern. Time and again, we see that those without access to water and sanitation are also those who are marginalized, excluded or discriminated against. Their inadequate access to safe water and sanitation is not simply an unfortunate by-product of their poverty but rather a result of political decisions that exclude them and de-legitimize their existence, which perpetuates their poverty.

The world is increasingly urban, with more people now living in cities and small towns than in rural areas. Forty percent of this growth is occurring in slums, which include well-established, yet unplanned or informal, settlements, as well as new settlements. Municipalities and states continue to fail to plan for this growth. All too often slums are considered illegal, and thus national and local authorities prohibit or refuse to extend water and sanitation services to people living there, claiming that connecting these communities will “legitimize” their presence where they are not supposed to be.

Water and sanitation are human rights which must be guaranteed to all people without discrimination, including based on tenure status. Solutions have been found to ensure that people living in slums and informal settlements gain access to safe water and sanitation in many countries of the world.

There are numerous examples of countries where new laws have been adopted to extend the water and sanitation networks to slums, which should be replicated, ensuring the meaningful participation of the community in finding appropriate solutions.

Persons living in poverty often pay more to access essential services such as water and sanitation. The UN argues that “Someone living in an informal settlement in Nairobi pays 5 to 7 times more for a liter of water than an average North American citizen.” With no legal connections to the formal water and sanitation network, people living in poverty often buy water of dubious quality from informal vendors, or use dirty shared latrines that are not properly managed - however, without these inferior services, millions would have no access to water and sanitation at all.

If the challenges in slums persist predominantly in developing country contexts, the problem of access to water and sanitation for homeless people is also a critical concern in developed countries. The numbers of homeless people are increasing in this time of crisis, and yet more and more cities are failing to maintain public restrooms and water fountains, reflecting political decisions which neglect to consider the impact that this lack of maintenance will have on those living in poverty and other excluded populations.

The lack of availability of public restrooms has a serious impact on the enjoyment of the rights to water and sanitation for persons living on the street, who are consequently left with no other option than to urinate and defecate in the open. Increasingly they also face criminal charges for this.

Governments must ensure that homeless people still have access to safe water and sanitation, including water and soap for basic hygiene. While a more long term solution which assists these people to find secure housing is necessary, in the interim countries have to put in place solutions that ensure access to water and sanitation in public spaces for all.

The human rights to water and sanitation require that these crucial services are available, accessible, affordable, acceptable and safe for everyone. Too often, people living in slums and homeless people are excluded from the enjoyment of these fundamental rights. In observing World Water Day this year, the UN experts call on States to take immediate measures to cease these continuing human rights violations and fully guarantee the human rights to water and sanitation to all people.”

The Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/water/iexpert/index.htm

The Independent Expert on the question of human rights and extreme poverty, Magdalena Sepúlveda: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Poverty/Pages/PovertyExpertIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Housing/Pages/HousingIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Lucinda O’Hanlon (Tel.: +41 22 917 9679 / e-mail: lohanlon@ohchr.org) or write to iewater@ohchr.org


For use of the information media; not an official record