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Statement by the United Nations Expert on Human Rights, Water and Sanitation (Visit to Slovenia, 24-28 May 2010)

Ljubljana, 28 May 2010

From 24-28 May 2010, I conducted a mission to Slovenia, aiming to assess the way in which the State is implementing its human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

I would like to begin by thanking the Government of Slovenia for the invitation to visit the country and the excellent cooperation exhibited in the preparation of and during the mission. I appreciated the work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in facilitating meetings with the actors that I requested to meet. I was honoured to be received by the President of the Republic, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Environment, the Ombudsman and other senior officials. I also met with representatives from the Office of National Minorities, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning, the Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Further meetings were held with non-governmental organizations, academics as well as individuals who have faced challenges in their access to drinking water and sanitation. I visited a water treatment plant in Koper, and a water treatment plant and wastewater treatment plant in Ljubljana. I also travelled to Dolenjska where I visited Roma settlements in Ribnica, Trebnje, Novo Mesto, and Škocjan. In Trebnje and Novo Mesto, I met with the mayors and other municipal officials. I am grateful to everyone who agreed to meet with me and assist me in better understanding the situation of human rights, drinking water and sanitation in Slovenia. I was especially moved by the personal stories shared with me and thank the individuals concerned for having met with me.

Today I will speak about my observations regarding the situation of safe drinking water and sanitation in Slovenia. The human rights to water and sanitation, protected under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, require that they are available, accessible, affordable and of good quality to all. These rights must be guaranteed in a non-discriminatory manner. Ensuring the rights to safe drinking water and to sanitation is closely related to the enjoyment of other human rights, including the rights to education, work, health, housing, and food.

The human right to water is protected under the national Constitution, and Slovenia has demonstrated its commitment to the rights to water and sanitation consistently at the international level. This commitment was reiterated in my meetings at the highest levels. Nearly 100 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water and 92 percent of the population is connected to the public water supply system. I welcome the thorough system of water quality testing implemented at the national and municipal levels and acknowledge that tap water in Slovenia meets EU standards. Furthermore, I was impressed by the Government’s achievement in ensuring a constant monitoring of groundwater resources available for current and future generations. Slovenia also has a strict regime of water protection zones to prevent contamination of water sources by agriculture, industry and other activities, which restricts or prohibits certain activities in the protected areas. Overall, I found that Slovenia has a good framework and system in place for ensuring provision of safe drinking water to the general population.

Concerning sanitation, over 50 percent of the population is connected to a wastewater treatment facility, and the numbers are steadily increasing due to significant efforts of the Government in this area. Those who do not have sewerage, generally have cesspools, which also hygienically separate human excreta from human and animal contact, thus meeting some important dimensions of the human rights requirements concerning sanitation.

Generally speaking, pollution of groundwater is not a widespread problem in Slovenia. However, in certain areas, worrying levels of pollution were reported to me by both Government and non-governmental sources. Pesticides, nitrates, and industrial contaminants are among the pollutants found in the Northeastern region of the country, as well as in Celje. I particularly received information about pollution in Celje reportedly having an impact on the health of the population. I acknowledge that the Government has taken measures in these regions to ensure that the water used for drinking and other personal uses is not a threat to human health. I encourage the Government to continue to guarantee access to safe drinking water in these regions, and to work with the concerned communities to find sustainable solutions to the pollution problems. I also encourage the Ministry of Environment to continue its efforts working with the Ministry of Agriculture to change agricultural practices and eliminate the use of harmful substances which threaten the larger environment.

Concern was also expressed to me about the sustainability of cesspools and other older sanitation systems, namely because of leakages into the soil due to deteriorating materials. The activities described to me by the Government indicate that it is making significant efforts to meet the requirements of the EU Wastewater Directive , but these efforts will need to be maintained, and even strengthened if it is to meet this goal. Inadequate wastewater treatment poses a serious threat to the environment, including to water resources. I encourage the Government to continue priority attention to this issue.

While water resources in Slovenia are abundant, with the luxury of significant groundwater resources, as well as a high precipitation rate, some areas of the country experience water stress during certain seasons. For example, in the coastal region, where tourism almost doubles water consumption in the summer period, the only water source in the region is insufficient to meet the demand. The water provider has arranged to buy water from other sources, including from abroad, to address this situation. But a more sustainable solution is needed, since the water purchased may not be available to buy indefinitely. The Government will need to support local municipalities to find alternatives for addressing changing water availability.

According to official statistics, about 240,000 people in Slovenia were at risk of poverty in 2008. The number of people registered to receive social benefits has been increasing steadily, with almost 25,000 new beneficiaries since 2002. However, these numbers may not capture the full extent of the situation since poverty is also a hidden reality. These people face potential problems in paying for basic services, including water and sanitation. With social assistance amounts defined at the national level, and different water and sanitation prices being defined by the municipalities, these affordability issues may be worse in some regions than in others. The Government must make sure that access to safe drinking water and sanitation does not jeopardize a person’s ability to enjoy other basic rights such as the rights to health, housing and food. In this context, I encourage the Government to establish an independent regulator for water and wastewater that would control pricing, quality and service performance in an independent manner. I note that plans for such a regulator are already under discussion.

I also met with some people who were “erased” as their names were removed from the register of permanent residence in 1992. Without identification documents or residency permits, their access to housing, work, basic services, health, education, social security were limited, representing serious violations of economic, social and cultural rights. This situation also impacted their ability to legally connect to the water and sewage networks. I commend the efforts of the Minister of Interior to restore the status of permanent residence to these people, and I call on the Government to regularize the situation of the remaining part of this population, as well as to recognize the human rights violations they have suffered.

Concerning the situation of the Roma population in Slovenia, official statistics report that 3000 Roma people live in Slovenia, while other estimates place the number of the population as high as 10,000. The Roma people in Slovenia live in approximately 105 settlements mainly in the Northeastern and Southeastern parts of the country. About 21 of these settlements have no access to water, and many of them also have no access to sanitation. 

The consequences of this lack of access to water and sanitation are devastating for these communities. The individuals I met explained that they are systematically ill with diarrhoea among other diseases. In one community with no access to water, the people drink from a polluted stream, or have to walk for 2 hours to obtain safe water. They collect the water in jerrycans to haul back to their homes. Moreover, with no other option, they are forced to defecate in the open. The situation is reminiscent of situations I have witnessed in much poorer countries and astonishing to observe in a country where so much has been achieved for the vast majority of the population.

The hygiene implications of lack of access to water and sanitation are particularly serious. I heard numerous people explain how their children go to school but eventually drop out because they are ashamed of not being able to wash, therefore being teased by the other schoolchildren about their smell. Similarly, adults face difficulties in finding work when they have no opportunity to keep minimum standards of hygiene. Women face particular issues when they have their periods and expressed a feeling of shame for the conditions under which they have to practice their menstrual hygiene.

The situation of the Roma minority in Slovenia is a difficult and complex issue and I note with appreciation that some municipalities have found positive solutions. For example, I learned that settlements in the Northeastern part of the country almost all have access to these most basic services. I also visited a settlement in Trebnje where important efforts have been made to ensure that the community is connected to water and sanitation. Furthermore, the community is working with the municipality to legalize the land and buildings where they live, which will represent a longer term solution to their situation. However, less than 30 minutes away, other municipalities fail to find similar solutions. I find these discrepancies unacceptable, and I call on the central Government to take urgent action to ensure that all people in Slovenia have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. This could be achieved through earmarking part of the funds that municipalities receive to extend access to these communities, as well as through exchange of good practices between municipalities, as well as with other European countries with Roma communities. Furthermore, swift and decisive action must be taken against any form of discrimination, including based on ethnicity.   

Overall, Slovenia has ensured the enjoyment of the rights to water and sanitation for the vast majority of the population. However, special attention is needed for the most vulnerable groups, and immediate steps are needed to ensure access for certain Roma communities. Slovenia has the expertise, experience and resources to ensure that these communities enjoy the same human rights as the rest of the Slovenian population. I am confident that Slovenia will take these steps without delay.

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