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Independent Expert: Sanitation is a matter of human rights

Lack of access to sanitation is an affront to human dignity. An independent expert told the Human Rights Council that the world faces a sanitation crisis, where it is estimated that 2.5 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation such as proper toilets and 1.2 billion people practise open defecation.

Twenty HIV/AIDS-affected families were evicted from Borei Keila and sent to the Tuol Sambo, in Cambodia on June 18, 2009. © Creative Commons“Sanitation is undoubtedly a matter of human rights and human dignity,” Catarina de Albuquerque, Independent Expert on human rights obligations related to safe drinking water and sanitation, told the Human Rights Council when presenting her 2009 report on 17 September.

She pointed out that sanitation is absolutely essential for realizing the rights to health and education and many other human rights. Each year, it is estimated that 1.6 million people die and 443 million school days are lost due to water and sanitation related diseases. In many parts of the world, girls do not go to school because of a lack of toilets, or lack of sex separated toilets.

“One of the biggest obstacles we face in tackling the sanitation crisis is the taboo surrounding the issue,” the independent expert said.

“Defecation and faeces are generally not considered appropriate topics for public gatherings, conferences and debates.

“We must break the taboo - too many children are dying, too many people are seriously ill, 40 per cent of the world’s population is suffering, and we cannot allow this to continue simply because it makes us uncomfortable to talk about such an intimate and private matter,” she said.

The poorest and most marginalized often face multiple discrimination and are worse affected. For example, 45 HIV/AIDS-affected families in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, were recently relocated to an undeveloped area at the outskirts of the city. They live in corrugated iron sheds with pit latrines that run into open sewers and further contaminate their water source. Those who cannot afford to buy clean water are left with no option but to drink and use non-potable water.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia (OHCHR-Cambodia) has been working to improve living conditions at resettlement sites for vulnerable communities. Together with the United Nations Country Team and non-governmental organizations, OHCHR-Cambodia is engaging the Cambodian authorities to address the critical sanitation problems confronting these families, who are already affected by HIV/AIDS.

The Independent Expert expressed her support for the growing recognition of “sanitation as a distinct right”. She pointed out that while sanitation is integrally linked to many human rights, there are “unique aspects to sanitation that evoke the inherent dignity of all human beings” and it would be impossible to address sanitation issues satisfactorily through other human rights.

The independent expert shared a story of an elderly woman:

“She lived with her family in a one room hut, which had a tap for water but no toilet. She needed to go to her neighbour’s house every time that nature called -- every time that she needed to defecate or urinate, she needed to ask ‘permission’ to enter her neighbour’s house. When she described her situation, you wondered: Was she comfortable enough to knock on this neighbour’s door in the middle of the night? When she had diarrhoea, was she comfortable returning to that door every ten minutes?”

“We can help break the powerful taboo surrounding sanitation and restore a sense of dignity to the lives of millions,” she told the 12th session of the Human Rights Council, which runs from 14 September to 2 October.

18 September 2009