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Press Statement - Mission to Namibia, 4-11 July 2011

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque -

Windhoek, Namibia
11 July 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,

From 4-11 July 2011, I undertook an official visit to Namibia at the invitation of the Government. I am honoured to be the first human rights expert invited in this capacity to this country. The objective of this visit was to assess the manner in which Namibia is realizing the human rights to water and sanitation. I wish to firstly thank the Government for the excellent cooperation exhibited during the preparation, and throughout this mission. I also extend a special thanks to UNICEF who played a fundamental role in organizing and supporting the mission.  

I was very pleased to be received by the Right Honourable Prime Minister who expressed his commitment to these issues and highlighted the understanding that water and sanitation are fundamental human rights – not only essential for every human being, but also for the healthy economic development of the nation. I had the opportunity to also meet with numerous Government ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Regional, Local Government, Housing and Rural Development, the National Planning Commission, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Health and Social Services. I also had meetings with NAM Water, the Ombudsman and some members of Parliament. The City of Windhoek took me to visit various informal settlements within the Katutura area, and the Ministry of Safety and Security arranged a visit for me to the Windhoek central prison. In addition, I met with various civil society organizations, private investors, the United Nations Country Team, and development partners. I discussed access to water and sanitation with a group of women who formed a savings group in Goreangab and with a community of Himba people in Epupa Constituency in Kunene region.  I further held discussions with regional and local authorities in Outapi, and in Epupa, as well as traditional leaders in Epupa. I am extremely grateful to everyone who shared their expertise and experience with me.  

The beauty and vast size of Namibia and the specific challenges the country faces with such a relatively dispersed population  was very apparent as we drove from Ondangwa to Opuwo, up to Epupa and all the way back to Windhoek with a stop in Otjiwarongo on the way.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Water and sanitation are human rights, which means that everyone has a right to water and sanitation that is accessible, available, affordable, acceptable and safe. Water quality must be safe for human consumption, and sanitation facilities must safely separate human excreta from human or animal contact. Water for personal and domestic uses must be clearly prioritized over any other water uses. Affordable water and sanitation services is not the same as free of charge, but it means that systems must be in place to ensure access for those who face economic barriers to access. These are legal obligations of the State of Namibia, which it has undertaken to guarantee through its adherence to international human rights treaties. The Constitution of Namibia makes these treaties directly applicable which means that these rights can be claimed in court. However, during my visit I observed a lack of knowledge about the rights to water and sanitation, as well as economic and social rights more broadly, which has an impact on peoples’ ability to claim them.  Wider awareness raising and education on economic and social rights, not only for the general public, but also for professional groups, is needed in Namibia.
Diarrhea is a leading cause of death for children under the age of five in Namibia, accounting for around 23 per cent of all deaths. Pneumonia accounts for 25 per cent of under-five deaths, and malnutrition accounts for another 9 percent.  Taken together, this means that well over half of all child deaths in Namibia are related to lack of access to sanitation and safe water, as well as poor hygiene practices. Add to this that 29 per cent of children under 5 are stunted, that 24 per cent of health facilities do not have running water, and that only 14 per cent of rural households have access to improved sanitation. This paints a very worrying picture of health in Namibia, and without serious attention to water and sanitation, this situation cannot improve.  This is reinforced even more in a country where an estimated 178,000 people live with HIV and therefore with compromised immune systems -- without clean water and sanitation they are more likely to become ill and develop opportunistic infections. 

It was clear from my visit that the inequitable access to water and sanitation reflects larger patterns of entrenched inequality in Namibia. Whilst there have been impressive human development gains since Independence in 1990, the country’s continued challenge going forward is to redress these inequalities.  

The Government of Namibia has undertaken important efforts to collect comprehensive data and I was extremely impressed with the transparent manner in which they provided information to support this mission. Their candidness as well as their willingness to admit problems or past mistakes, combined with the firm determination to overcome the obstacles they face, was inspiring.

Over the past 20 years, Namibia has achieved significant progress in extending its water network across the country. Access to improved water sources appears to be very high, especially in urban areas. More recently, Namibia has put in place a comprehensive policy framework for ensuring access to water and sanitation. Special emphasis is placed on the need for accelerated progress in the area of sanitation, given that it lags clearly behind water. The 2009 Sanitation Strategy is an exemplary planning document which lays the foundations for further progress.

This policy framework, however, depends on full cooperation and coordination between different levels of Government as well as across different Ministries. Water and sanitation is everyone’s business – this is evidenced by the vast range of entities with whom I met during the past week. Progress in extending access will never happen unless all involved Ministries, as well as regional and local authorities, make it their mission to make it happen – this is crucial at all stages of programme design, implementation and monitoring and evaluation. Others active in the area of water and sanitation also must coordinate their work in line with the vision provided by the policy framework. In this regard, active participation in the national water and sanitation coordination forum is vital to sharing information, avoiding duplication and repeated mistakes. Coordination fora on water and sanitation at the regional and local levels are also being established, and are equally important to ensuring Namibia moves beyond isolated projects towards a more consistent and comprehensive approach.

These policies should also receive adequate budget allocations and be subject to regular scrutiny on how funds are being spent. Public expenditure reviews, which have proved to be useful in other sectors, should also be utilized in this context. This is a fundamental part of monitoring the realization of human rights, including the rights to water and sanitation.

In some places, water points are still extremely far away from households. This has an impact on children’s access to education, as well as women’s ability to engage in other activities. It also puts in doubt the number of people drinking safe water, as many appear to opt for a river or creek, or a  potentially polluted traditional well, rather than a safe water point further away. I witnessed this reality in Epupa Constituency where people are drinking from a dirty traditional well, sharing it with their livestock, rather than walking the long distance to the water point. The distance between the village and the water source was mentioned by the members of the village, in order to explain why they did not wash their hands after defecation and before eating.

An overwhelming complaint that I heard on this mission was the assertion that water is too expensive. As I have already said, the human rights to water and sanitation do not require these to be free. However, I do think that there is a water affordability problem affecting many people in this country. I was informed that the City of Windhoek, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry are investigating options for potential subsidies to help alleviate this problem. I acknowledge that Namibia is an arid country and that the process of delivering safe water is expensive. However, when water is too expensive, low income people are forced to make unacceptable trade offs – choosing between water and medicine or food for their child for instance. I met with a group of women who saved their money to buy a block of land in Katutura. The water services provided by the city arrive only at their property line. Since their water consumption is measured as a group, it is provided at a flat rate which corresponds to the full cost recovery price of the rising block tariff structure. Although they are clearly a low income group, and they do not consume very much water, they pay more than the basic rate. I was told of numerous other situations where low income people seem to be paying too much. Specific attention is needed to their circumstances, and solutions must be found for these types of situations. Many other countries face similar challenges, and have found a variety of innovative solutions to address them. 

For me, the biggest challenge Namibia is facing is the low sanitation coverage. The need for potable water supply and basic sanitation services in Namibia was identified at independence as one of the major basic essential needs of which the Nation, especially people living in communal areas, had been deprived. However, there has been unequal attention to water and sanitation --it is time for sanitation to be accorded the same priority as water. This will require political will, adequate funding, significant capacity development, and intense coordination.

I observed a strong debate taking place in the country with regard to wet vs dry sanitation. In my opinion, dry sanitation will play an important role in the future for this country. Wet sanitation will make unaffordable water even more unaffordable. In the dry climate of Namibia, wet sanitation also uses precious water resources, which the country cannot afford to spare. Thus, dry sanitation presents a more sustainable path forward for everyone – rich and poor. This reflects a wider trend in the world, including some of the most affluent places, to opt for more ecologically sustainable sanitation solutions.

I visited the Clay House Project in Otjiwarongo, where Otji toilets were invented, and saw them in use in Katutura. Namibia should be proud of this pioneering solution, which enables access to safe and dignified sanitation while saving scarce water resources. Where it has been implemented, the municipalities concerned have committed to emptying the containers, as part of larger government services such as garbage removal, paid for by taxes. There is considerable scope in Namibia for increased usage of such solutions, which could also have a positive impact in reducing the very high level of unemployment. 

However, implementing dry sanitation solutions will only work with widespread awareness raising efforts. Dry sanitation solutions will never become the norm if they are continued to be perceived as second-class options.  Communities and households must have choices about which sanitation technology suits their needs best. In this regard, they must have access to information about all of the implications, including financial consequences, of implementing different solutions, rather than making a decision based on the perceived superiority of one model over another.

I was pleased to hear that at the landmark National Education Conference two weeks ago, the importance of ensuring clean water and sanitation in all schools and hostels was discussed, and that the Minister of Education and all Conference participants were surprised to learn that if the present rate of progress is maintained it will not be until the year 2039 before all schools have latrine facilities.  I was encouraged to hear that different models of ecologically-appropriate dry latrines are being built in schools.  Of course, simply having a physical facility is not enough: the latrine must be maintained, clean, available to be used by all learners, and there must be facilities for handwashing including soaps next to the latrines.

Increasing sanitation coverage equally requires serious attention to hygiene promotion. I have unfortunately received information about toilets being built in Namibia which are not used because of inadequate awareness raising efforts to make sure people would understand the benefits of using such facilities. I also received information about toilets being built but maintained in such a poor state that the concerned community reverted to open defecation. Handwashing after defecation is crucial for good health and yet, I also witnessed toilets built with sinks attached but with no pipes or other mechanisms for delivering water for handwashing. In all of these cases, the potentially good benefits of investing in sanitation are virtually lost because there was not simultaneous attention to hygiene promotion and awareness raising on the benefits of safe sanitation. The role of health extension workers working at the local level, in close coordination with other relevant authorities, will be fundamental for hygiene promotion, and consequently reducing the number of victims of preventable diseases. 

More broadly, increasing access to water and sanitation in a meaningful way will require engagement with communities. Communities have important perspectives which must be taken into account in the design and implementation of projects. They also play an important role in monitoring the quality of their access. Participation is not only a fundamental human right, but it will also lead to more sustainable outcomes. Thus, community consultation is indispensable.

I know that the process for formulating the National Development Plan IV for 2012 to 2017 has just begun.  This is a critical moment to seize for the prioritization of human rights, sanitation and water, to ensure better coordination on these issues, and to allocate necessary funding towards them. With a strong emphasis on sanitation and water, the NDP4 can take critical steps towards the achievement of Vision 2030 and the MDGs . More widespread understanding of water and sanitation as human rights will have a decisive impact on empowering people to claim their rights, and holding the Government accountable to its obligations.

Namibia has achieved an extraordinary amount in its short life as a nation since independence. I am convinced that the Government  will build upon what has been achieved to make water and sanitation a more tangible reality for the many Namibians who currently lack it.
Catarina de Albuquerque is a Portuguese lawyer currently working as a senior legal adviser at the Office for Documentation and Comparative Law (an independent institution under the Portuguese Prosecutor General’s Office) in the area of human rights. She holds a DES in international relations with a specialization in international law from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. She was appointed as Special Rapporteur in September 2008 and took up her functions in November 2008.
Learn more about the Independent Expert’s mandate and work, log on to: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/water/iexpert/index.htm