Header image for news printout

Statement by Mr. Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation at the 36th Session of the Human Rights Council

Geneva, 11 September 2017

Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Today I have the pleasure to present three reports: a thematic report on service regulation and the human rights to water and sanitation, and reports on my visits to Portugal and to Mexico.

In addition to the tasks related to those reports, I have also undertaken various activities as part of my mandate since I last reported to the Human Rights Council in September last year. Among those activities, I would like to highlight my engagement on the monitoring of SDG6 and the concerns that I have been raising regarding the lack of an effective inclusion of human rights perspectives in this process, for which I issued an open letter addressed to the custodian UN agencies. To access this letter and for further information on activities that I have carried out in the past year, I would invite everyone to visit the “activities” page of my webpage hosted by OHCHR.

Service regulation and the human rights to water and sanitation

Allow me to briefly present my thematic report on service regulation. In the report (A/HRC/36/45) presented before you today, I focussed on service regulation in the water and sanitation sector and its role in the progressive realization of the human rights to water and sanitation.

Under articles 2 and 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States have the obligation to take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps to establish a regulatory framework for water and sanitation service provision that meets the State’s obligations to respect, protect and fulfil these human rights. States must ensure that regulation and regulatory actors contribute to the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation without discrimination of any kind.

In the regulatory frameworks, States should safeguard adequate provision of services to, inter alia, homeless people, dispersed communities, and to victims of situations of armed conflict, emergencies, natural disasters or climate change effects.

States have the obligation to ensure that regulation provides a multifaceted and differentiated interpretation of affordability, capturing the specific needs of those living in vulnerable situations. Concretely, States should prohibit disconnections due to inability to pay in law and in regulatory frameworks, as this is a retrogressive measure and violates the human rights to water and sanitation.

Regulatory actors must take positive measures to ensure the progressive realization of the human rights to water and sanitation in a non-discriminatory manner. Such measures should target specific challenges including: the prioritisation of service coverage to poorer neighbourhoods, informal settlements and rural areas; the denial of the rights to water and sanitation on the basis of housing or land status; the lack of affordability of services for the poorest.

Regulatory actors must provide access to objective, comprehensible, clear, and consistent information and facilitate free, active and meaningful participation in regulatory decision-making processes. Primarily, they play the role of identifying retrogressions in the realisation of the rights to water and sanitation and requiring providers to address the root causes of such violations.

I emphasize that international human rights law does not call for a particular choice of regulatory framework. What is essential from a human rights perspective is that those carrying out regulatory functions be immune to pressures from any illegitimate interests and that the main objectives of regulation be aligned with the water and sanitation human rights standards and principles. One of the key roles of regulation is to set performance standards. Regardless of the body carrying out regulatory functions, these standards should reflect and give practical meaning to the normative content of the human rights to water and sanitation with regard to availability, accessibility, quality and safety, affordability, acceptability, privacy and dignity. This is a key issue, since regulation in the water and sanitation sector is often oriented merely by an economic perspective.

In conclusion, I would like to underline that regulatory frameworks must support all States’ obligations with regard to the human rights to water and sanitation and that regulatory actors’ role should go beyond monitoring and enforcement. It should support and influence policy changes in line with the human rights framework.

Mr. President,

Let me now move onto the two country missions that I conducted in 2016 and the first semester of 2017. Firstly, I would like to highlight that in both these missions I received full support from the governments and relevant stakeholders. That was key to ensuring a proper assessment of the situation of the human rights to water and sanitation in those countries. I would like to reiterate my sincere appreciation to the two Governments.


I visited Portugal from 5 to 13 December 2016 together with the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha. It was the first joint country visit that I have undertaken and I appreciate the Government for being flexible in accommodating the joint visit.

Portugal is known for the “Portuguese miracle”, having achieved outstanding progress in the water and sanitation sector over the last decades, which is largely recognized worldwide. Portugal now enjoys almost near universal water coverage and the coverage of sanitation services, although at a lower rate than water services, has also shown clear signs of progress. Drinking water quality and wastewater treatment have also experienced impressive improvement. These achievements should be recognized and celebrated and I warmly commend the current and the past Portuguese governments and also the Portuguese society for this success.

In particular, I would like to mention the recently adopted State Budget Law, which authorizes the Government to establish a legal regime for the automatic attribution of a social tariff for the provision of water services to lower income consumers. These include persons benefiting from old-age social pensions, solidarity supplements for the elderly, social integration incomes, unemployment social benefits, family allowance and disability social pensions. This law, however, requires further institutional steps in order to be fully implemented at the municipal level.

At the same time, I wish to express my regret that the Congress did not adopt the draft bill on the protection of individual and common rights to water, which would have established the fundamental rights to water and sanitation in national legislation.

Finally, I wish to highlight that for the “Portuguese miracle” to be fully complete, a comprehensive assessment of the State’s institutional arrangements in the water and sanitation should be developed from a human rights perspective. Indeed, institutional tensions exist regarding the roles of bulk water providers and retail providers, the degree of centralization or decentralization of water provision, and the roles of central government and local authorities. Those tensions may be the root cause of some concerning human rights situations, particularly regarding the affordability of water and sanitation for populations that are in most vulnerable situations, including the “new poor” that have emerged after periods of austerity measures.


Señor Presidente,

Para empezar, quisiera reconocer los esfuerzos realizados por los tres niveles de gobierno de México para mejorar la cobertura de la infraestructura de agua y saneamiento. Las instituciones trabajan vigorosamente para ofrecer servicios y me impresionó la dedicación por parte de los numerosos funcionarios e ingenieros comunitarios que conocí, para operar y mejorar los servicios, en muchos casos en situaciones difíciles.

México también debe ser elogiado por haber revisado su Constitución e incorporado los derechos humanos al agua y el saneamiento, lo que aporta un valioso fundamento constitucional sobre el que construir. Quiero resaltar que ha llegado el momento de cumplir la promesa de la Constitución y de transformar esas obligaciones en un disfrute real de estos derechos para todos los mexicanos.

A pesar de esta evolución positiva, México enfrenta numerosos desafíos para garantizar los derechos humanos al agua potable y el saneamiento para su población de unos 120 millones de habitantes, que viven en zonas urbanas y comunidades rurales por todo el país. Muchos viven en regiones de alto o muy alto estrés hídrico, experimentan niveles bajos de desarrollo en comunidades rurales dispersas y niveles de pobreza significativos, que requieren enfoques específicos para la prestación de servicios. A estos desafíos de los últimos años, se suma una situación económica en la que los ingresos del gobierno han disminuido notablemente y la asignación presupuestaria y la inversión en el agua y el saneamiento han disminuido drásticamente.

Para superar las barreras a la realización progresiva de los derechos humanos al agua y el saneamiento es esencial garantizar el apoyo a los servicios municipales e a las comunidades, de forma que estos respeten completamente la obligación y el compromiso nacional en proporcionar agua potable y saneamiento, lo que frecuentemente no ocurre. El Gobierno debe seguir esforzándose para atender a todos los grupos de populación sin discriminación, prestando especial atención a los desafíos que enfrentan los pueblos indígenas y las personas sin hogar.

Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Finally, I wish to provide brief information on the plans of my mandate for the second half of 2017 and 2018. I will be conducting a country visit to India in October this year and I am grateful for the acceptance and the cooperation of the Government of India thus far.

My next two thematic reports will be on the issue of the human rights to water and sanitation in humanitarian assistance and the issue of accountability and the human rights to water and sanitation. As announced, I am organizing two kick-off roundtables tomorrow and the day after on the two themes. I hope that these brainstorming sessions, whereby I reaffirm my engagement with the communities dedicated to water, sanitation and human rights, will provide valuable insights to initiate the preparation of both reports.