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Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to safe drinking water and sanitation (Visit to Botswana, 9-17 November 2015)

Gaborone, 17 November 2015

From 9-17 November 2015, I conducted an official country visit to Botswana, aiming to assess the situation of the human rights to water and sanitation in the country.

I would like to begin by thanking the Government of the Republic of Botswana for the invitation to visit the country. During the mission I met with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources, of Health and of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, the Attorney-General, the Water Utilities Corporation, local authorities, the Ombudsman, civil society organizations and the international community. I also visited communities, health facilities and schools in Old Naledi, Kasane, Maun, Sexaxa, Ghanzi town, D’Kar, Tubu, Shaikarawe, and New Xade. I talked to community leaders, human rights defenders, women, children and health workers. I am grateful to everyone who assisted me in better understanding the progress made and the outstanding challenges in realizing the human rights to water and sanitation for all. I would like to also thank the UN Resident Coordinator and the Country Team for their support to this mission.

The situation of access to water and sanitation

Botswana has been going through one of the worst droughts in its history. There have been water cuts in addition to the regular rationing of water. I observed people’s resilience as well as the Government’s efforts to provide the essential amount of water to the population. However, to me, Botswana is in an emergency situation. Urgent measures are needed to secure drinking water particularly for those who cannot afford to buy water from private companies or shops.

The current severe level of water scarcity is more concerning with the predictions of further decreases in the availability of water in the future in Botswana. A study shows that with the combination of climate change and an increasing demand for water, the level of water stress in Botswana is envisaged to double by 2040 (from 1.45 in 2010 to 3.0 in 2040 ). One of the government officials I met admitted that Botswana would face a catastrophic situation if the current level of water availability continues and if further measures are not taken.

I believe that the Government can learn from this emergency and place water security as the main driver for the national plans and policies, prioritizing personal and domestic uses. I also strongly call upon the international community to provide support to the current emergency situation. For a longer-term strategy, I urge the neighbouring countries to cooperate and promptly come to agreements on the use of trans-boundary water resources.

Despite the difficult geographic and environmental conditions, Botswana has made impressive overall progresses in the water and sanitation sector. According to the monitoring of the Millennium Development Goals, the country is expected to achieve 96 percent of access to improved water and 63 percent of access to improved sanitation by the end of 2015. Botswana increased coverage for piped water on premises by 52% during the MDGs period. A significant percentage of people (14%), particularly in rural areas (34%), though, still practice open defecation.

The human rights to water and sanitation

Botswana has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. These international human rights treaties include legal obligations on the human right to life, and obligations related to access to water and sanitation. However, Botswana is one of the few remaining countries not to have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is a strong legal basis for the human rights to water and sanitation.

In line with the mandate entrusted to me by the Human Rights Council, to which Botswana is a member, I would like to underline that the country is bound by international human rights law and principles. According to international human rights law, the State must take measures to ensure, as soon as possible, access to water and adequate sanitation that are accessible, available, affordable, acceptable and safe in all spheres of life. The realization of these rights also requires providing access to adequate and affordable hygiene practices, including hand washing and menstrual hygiene management. Effective measures have to be taken in order to ensure an adequate disposal and treatment of human wastes. Furthermore, discrimination is prohibited in relation to basic services including the human rights to water and sanitation.

I strongly encourage Botswana to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. To recognize the human rights to water and sanitation is a crucial first step to realize access to water and sanitation for all without discrimination. The Covenant does not expect the State to realize these rights immediately. Rather, it provides a framework of the rights and guides us on how to implement them.

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Let me now address some of the outstanding challenges I observed from a human rights perspective:

Availability of Water

In Botswana, available water resources are getting lower over time. With the influence of climate change, rainfalls are already decreasing, and the temperature rise in Botswana is expected to exceed the world average. In addition to the scarcity, it suffers a geographically uneven distribution of water, while more and more population concentrate in the urban areas in the South where rainfalls are lower.

Under the current drought, the Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources has been imposing starker measures of water rationing. In late October and the beginning of November, only limited areas of the Greater Gaborone Area had regular supply of water, some areas had water with low pressure and others had no water at all. Those who have the means are buying water and storing it in large tanks. Many people I met with were simply storing water in buckets. Even in a clinic in the Greater Gaborone Area, there was no water. The clinic was going through a procurement process of buying a water tank, in the middle of this drought, with the Government’s support. This kind of contingency plans must be put in place and implemented in advance.

One of the human rights obligations is that water supply must be continuous. While controlled rationing of water may be unavoidable in extreme situations, frequent lack of water inside pipelines can lead to increased contamination of the water mains through intrusion of harmful substances. Therefore, experiences show that rationing of water through intermittent supply is a false economy, as this invariably leads to increased losses. Non-retrogression is also an important principle of human rights. I believe that the Government needs to develop a concrete strategy to increase the availability of water through other measures, not relying on intermittent supply for a longer term.

Water loss is a serious concern in a water scarce country. Half of the water resources are wasted due to leakage and inefficient management practices. Under the leadership of the Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources, and with support from international partners, the Water Utilities Corporation (WUC), a parastatal organization, is implementing a strategy to reduce the water loss level to 22 percent by 2018, and to 15 percent eventually. This is a welcome measure to increase water availability.

The WUC announces the current water supply situation as well as the schedule of the water shut-down. It also visits households and schools to encourage the saving of water by the repair of leaking taps and pipes. This is also a welcoming effort as access to such information itself is a human right, but also people’s engagement is essential to manage water losses and wastage and to increase the availability of water.

I would like to stress that one of the human rights obligations is to prioritize the personal and domestic water use (drinking, personal and household hygiene, food preparation, washing of clothes, personal sanitation) over other uses of water. The National Water Policy of 2012 is in line with this obligation, which states that “management (of water resources) shall be through participatory approaches, and the basic requirements required for human consumption is given the first priority to access to water.” While I support such a policy, I urge the Government to implement concrete measures and also to guarantee the prioritization of personal and domestic use in its legislation.

Quality of water and sanitation services

The WUC monitors the quality of drinking water according to the Botswana Standards for Drinking Quality Water Specifications, which requires that potable water meets its minimum standard as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO) Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality. Although the Ministry of Health performs some drinking water quality surveillance, its role does not seem effective since there is no systematic communication with the WUC. The WUC is not obliged to report the results of the monitoring to the surveillance either.

According to the official data provided by the WUC, the compliance level of microbiological analysis of 8 out of 34 monitoring areas in the period of July to September this year is below 50 percent. In three monitoring areas, there was no proper monitoring data available. While the WUC monitors the water quality of boreholes not connected to the network, the information of the individual boreholes is not reported or not easily available. In villages I visited, some people said that the WUC sometimes collects samples of water of boreholes, but they were never informed of the results. The right to information concerning access to water and sanitation is an important element of the human rights, and people have the right to be informed of the quality of water they are consuming.

Regarding the quality of sanitation services, contamination of water sources due to inadequate management of pit latrines and leakages is a concern. As of 2015, approximately one-fourth of the households have access to water-borne sanitation. If the household is located in an area where the groundwater table is shallow, the government does not allow the use of pit latrines or septic tank with soak-away, and encourages the use of so-called conservancy tanks. There are two major wastewater treatment facilities in Gaborone and Francistown, but the latter does not have sufficient capacity at the moment. There are some localities with stabilization ponds as the wastewater treatment process, but usually the lagoons are overloaded and receive inadequate maintenance. Almost half of the population use pit latrines either in their premises or in shared-facilities. Pit latrines with proper slabs could be an acceptable solution if they follow certain standards including the protection of groundwater. However, support from the Government to provide a guidance regarding latrine construction and sludge management seems not to be adequate.

In my view, some types of pit latrines, for instance, eco-toilets with a composting function could be explored by the Government as one of the adaptation measures to the effects of climate change. Eco-toilets reduce water demand significantly, and contribute to protecting precious water sources from being contaminated by wastewater.

Related to the quality of water and sanitation services, waterborne diseases, particularly diarrhoea, are still common, in particular in rural areas. While a decrease for the trend of 2000-2012 was reported by the World Health Organization, diarrhoea was still the cause of 6 per cent of all under-five deaths for the year 2013. The under-five mortality rate for 2013 was 47 per 1000 live births and there is an estimation of 180 deaths under-five due to diarrhoeal diseases. Fortunately, according to the relevant authorities and health workers I interviewed, there has been no report on diarrhoeal outbreak under the current shortage of water. The Government should keep eye on the development as the lack of water often leads to unhygienic conditions.

People of special concern

- People living in rural areas
While Botswana has achieved a significant expansion of water piped networks, in rural areas such as in Okavango Delta, the proportion of households with access to improved water sources is still low. It also has a particular policy in which villages and settlements with more than 250 people are entitled to a set of basic services including water. According to the human rights law, everyone is entitled to access to water and sanitation. In other words, the State has the obligation to ensure access to water and sanitation to everyone, without discrimination, wherever he or she lives. I urge the Government to review this policy from a point of view of ensuring equal access to water and sanitation for everyone.

In rural areas without networks I visited, the consumption of water per person appears to be very low – 15-20 litres per person per day. This is far lower than the absolute necessary water level under emergency situations (50 litres per person). A WHO study reveals that with access to 20 litres per person, the health concern level is high as hygiene practices are difficult with this amount. In a village I visited, people were fetching brown water from the river and were drinking it directly because they could not afford or have access to fuels to boil water.  

A significant part of people in rural areas uses pit latrines. The WUC charges the service of emptying pit latrines according to the distance between the town centre and the house. This could be an unfair charge for households who happen to live in remote areas. I recommend that the WUC explore a cross-subsidy system in charging this service. Some of the households rely on non-regulated private companies, which also implies affordability concerns.

In addition, a large number of the population still resort to open defecation in the bush. While the Ministry of Health conducts some awareness-raising activities, I would like to remind the Government that raising awareness of health risks among the population as well as providing alternative solutions are also State’s obligations.

  • People in transition from nomadic life and in resettlements

I observed inadequate situations of water and sanitation both in poor areas in the urban settings and in rural areas. However, the lack of access to water in settlements where traditionally nomadic communities have settled over the last generation as well as resettlements was particularly a grave concern. The population of some of the villages is larger than the threshold of 250 people, but there is no water connection. One of the communities has a pipeline connected to a public water point, but they did not know why the WUC sometimes supplies water through the pipeline and sometimes delivers water by truck. Either way, the provision of water is not systematic and the public water tanks go empty for 4-5 consecutive days. When I visited this community, public water tanks were empty and most of the people were out looking for water in a village, which is 20km away.

In Molapo in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, for instance, I was also informed that there was no water service and that people struggle to secure water by traditional ways. Some communities are caught in the transition from their nomadic way of living to living in a settlement. They can no longer freely move to look for water, at the same time, they do not receive adequate water service from the State in their settlements.

“METSI KE BOTSHELO JWA MOTHO, MOTHO A KA SETSHELE A SENA KETSI.” (Water is life, no water, no life.) This is what one of the elders told me.

  • Women and girls

Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene in schools particularly affect girls. Some girls simply do not use the toilet in school because of poor sanitation facilities and often the absence of menstrual hygiene management. They do not eat or drink water until they go home. A girl I interviewed said that there is a disposal service, but it is difficult to manage menstrual hygiene without water available in school. Menstrual hygiene management that ensures privacy and human dignity is an important but often forgotten component of the human rights to water and sanitation.

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Balancing affordability and sustainability

Under the water sector reform started in 2009, the WUC streamlined the different tariff schemes into two (one for the public sector, and the other for the domestic, commercial and industrial uses). Compared to other countries, it is a unique tariff scheme which sets the same price for commercial and industrial uses and for domestic use. The WUC is introducing pre-paid meters for the public water points, which had been free of charge. While I understand their justification that some charges will encourage people to save water, I am concerned that there is no clear safety net for those who cannot afford this new charge.

I observed a similar concerning situation regarding sanitation. District authorities used to provide sludge collection services, but this responsibility has been handed over to the WUC at a much higher rate (about 600 pula per each operation). I was informed that many people cannot afford this charge, and many pit latrines are over-flowing. In contrast, wastewater tariffs are extremely low.

From a human rights perspective, these tariff schemes for water and sanitation raise a couple of concerns: 1) Enterprises who can afford to pay a higher tariff are subsidized by these relatively low tariffs. This means that individual households, who are connected, may in fact be subsidizing enterprises. In addition, individual households, who are not connected, those usually worse-off, not only lack necessary assistance from the Government to realize their human rights to water and sanitation, but also may indirectly subsidize enterprises through taxes. 2) This situation also raises concern that the utilities do not collect enough revenue to invest in operation and maintenance or to expand the connection networks to those who are not served. In fact, the WUC is in a deficit and is heavily subsidized by the Government. This raises concerns over the future capacity of the Corporation to face the persisting challenges of the water and sanitation sector.

I urge the Government to revisit the tariff systems and the new charges on public water points and put in place clear mechanisms to ensure affordable water and sanitation for all, including those who cannot pay the bills for the reasons beyond their control such as unemployment. At the same time, the tariff systems should be set in order to ensure sustainability of water and sanitation services.

Legal and institutional frameworks

The human rights to water and sanitation need to be translated into laws, policies, and budgeting. The Constitution of Botswana has provisions related to human rights including the right to life, though does not explicitly recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. The Water Act (1967) is the principal legal instrument on water, but does not sufficiently deal with water supply and sanitation issues.

Following the water sector reform, the WUC is responsible for water service delivery and wastewater management. At the district level, emptying pit latrines and disposal of sludge were handed over from the district authorities to the district offices of the WUC. Both in rural villages and new settlements and resettlements I visited, people told me that they were happier with the services of water and emptying pit latrines provided by the district authorities. According to them, water provision became unreliable and emptying latrines became unaffordable after the WUC took it over. They also raised concerns that it is difficult to identify whom they can consult with when problems with water and sanitation occur.

I would like to remind that even in cases of delegation of water and sanitation service provisions to third parties – either private or public companies – the Government is obligated to regulate and monitor the activities of those institutions, to ensure that all aspects of the human rights are guaranteed.

Discussions to establish an independent regulator are ongoing. The role of the regulator is essential as part of accountability mechanisms. Therefore, I call upon the Government of Botswana to establish an independent regulator with competence to monitor the compliance of the water and sanitation providers with the normative content of the human rights to water and sanitation. Such a regulator should be also given mandates to encourage genuine public participation in decision-making, with the proper information disclosure, and to ensure a mandatory affordability standard in order that water and sanitation are affordable for all.

Conclusion

Botswana is known as a success story of stable economic growth and development. It upholds the core human rights principle of equality and non-discrimination in its Constitution, other legislations and all policies.

I am confident that the Government, who has achieved remarkable progresses since independence in 1966, has the capacity to reach out to all citizens particularly those in the rural and remote areas, who have not equally benefitted from such development including the access to water and sanitation. Regardless of the delegation of the water and sanitation services, the primary obligation to realize the human rights for all rests on the national government. 

At the same time, the Government must continue to invest in sanitation and water services to guarantee affordable services for the poor and marginalized. The good news is for each USD invested in achieving universal access to basic sanitation at home, the estimated benefit Botswana would enjoy is 3 USD.  The benefits of investing in water and sanitation are evident in improved health and saving work losses.

To address an extreme shortage of available water, such as in the case of the current drought, I also call upon development partners to continuously offer its support, financially and otherwise, to the people of Botswana. I urge the Government of Botswana to take the current extreme drought as a learning opportunity to develop a comprehensive strategy for providing uninterrupted access to safe drinking water and sanitation in the foreseen increasing water stress.

These are only some preliminary impressions. A full report on this visit will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2016, which will include a more detailed analysis of all that I have learned during this mission as well as specific recommendations to the Government and other key actors.

I look forward to continuing this dialogue with the Government towards achieving the full realization of the human rights to water and sanitation to all people in Botswana.

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The ratio of water withdrawals over renewable supply