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Statement by Mr. Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation at the 42nd Session of the Human Rights Council

9 September 2018

Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I have the pleasure to present today a total of seven reports: my thematic report and reports on my visits to Malaysia and Lesotho. Furthermore, I am presenting four follow-up country reports on my visits to Botswana, El Salvador, Tajikistan and Portugal.1

The human rights to water and sanitation in sphere of life beyond the household, with emphasis on public spaces

Let me start highlighting some issues that I raised in my thematic report, where I focussed on the human rights to water and sanitation in spheres of life beyond the household, with an emphasis on public spaces. By “spheres of life beyond the household”, I refer to all areas that people visit and use that are outside of our homes. These include workplaces, schools, health facilities, detention centres, streets, transportation hubs like train or bus stations, markets, public squares or parks, among others.

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As this is an ‘interactive’ dialogue, I would like to try something out of the box. This requires participation from all of you in this room.

Please raise your hand if you ever experienced having to urgently look for a toilet when you were in a public park, walking on the street or anywhere outside home.

More than half in the room.

I will raise my hand because I have experienced this on several occasions, particularly when I travelled long distance to rural areas in my country visits or when I am travelling for leisure. This is a very common phenomena that everyone and anyone can face.

I would like to continue this interactive dialogue with the understanding that the human rights to water and sanitation in public space is not an issue exclusive to specific groups of people but that all of us can be affected.

Most of us spend a large part of our time outside of the home, particularly in our workspaces. However, many in the world do not share the same comfort that we enjoy here at Palais des Nations, where there are several toilets on each floor and potable drinking water from the tap that runs continuously. For instance, those whose workspace consists of open agricultural field or streets, such as rickshaw drivers and street vendors, cannot rely on toilets or water points because there are none around them. Public spaces, as zones accessible to all, are lifelines for numerous people and, accordingly, must be given due recognition in the water and sanitation policies of States.

In my report, I highlight that access to water and sanitation in many spheres of life beyond the household is an essential element for the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation. However, I found that there is often an evident neglect of the provision and promotion of these vital services in many of such places.

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Regarding particularly public spaces, many people face hard difficulties in using water and sanitation facilities in such spaces. For those who are economically vulnerable, having to pay to use public toilets means that they cannot afford to use them. For persons with disability, particularly those with physical disabilities, public toilets not designed for them would mean that they cannot use those facilities. For transgender and gender nonconforming persons, when they are forced to only use toilet which match the gender they were assigned at birth in public space but mainly at the workspace, can lead to lost of employment and source of income to sustain their living.

Therefore, I recommend States to include water and sanitation in spheres of life beyond the household, and particularly in public spaces, in their policies, plans and implementation strategies, with a view to ensuring access which complies with the normative content of the human rights to water and sanitation and the principles of human rights.

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Related to SDGs, I want to outline that in order to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable water and sanitation for all, as stated in SDGs 6.1 and 6.2, it is essential to reflect the importance of the requirements of ‘universal’ and ‘for all’ – two expressions used in the language of the targets - in policy and practice. Access to water and sanitation at home does not ensure the inclusion of a wide range of spheres beyond the household and inevitably, there will be people left behind.

I urge that international monitoring bodies associated with the Sustainable Development Goals include a broader range of spheres of life beyond the household in their assessments and establish methodologies to define levels of services in those spaces compatible with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the human rights framework. In particular, special care must be taken to ensure that the data includes all relevant groups.

I would also like to stress that my colleagues in the human rights community need to take further actions. I call on my colleagues in the international human rights treaty mechanisms and bodies to include public spaces and other relevant spheres of life beyond the household in their assessments and monitoring of the enjoyment of human rights, both in specific States and globally.

Mr. President,

Let me now move onto the two country missions.

Malaysia (14 – 27 November 2018)

I would like to thank the Government of Malaysia for the constructive spirit and the engagement during the visit. When I held the joint government meeting in Miri, several officials from the capital of Sabah, Kuching, and all service providers from the state travelled to meet with me. This is an example of the support I enjoyed in the country. One of the sense of satisfaction that I feel is when I see different parts of the government gather in one meeting and start talking to one another about the human rights to water and sanitation, which I saw often in Malaysia. 

I observed that Malaysia is a high performer in water and sanitation and that the overall access to water and sanitation services is truly impressive. I commend the Government and the population of Malaysia for achieving near universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene, which are the result of a historic commitment to the provision of public services.

However, when this picture is observed from a human rights perspective, it is a concern that some groups still do not enjoy their human rights to water and sanitation as they collect water from surface sources that are often compromised in terms of quality, and use inadequate sanitation services. I have highlighted the situation of these groups in my report and provided corresponding recommendations for the Government to consider implementing.

One of my responsibility as Special Rapporteur, as I understand, is to report back to the Human Rights Council the voice of affected individuals and groups and to speak on their behalf. Conscious of that responsible, I highlighted in my report some of the interactions that I had and stories that I heard during my visit, particularly from those that are unserved or underserved and, consequently, left behind. While these stories are not statistically representative, I emphasize that a human rights-based approach prioritizes and focuses on those who are socially and economically marginalized and who may otherwise be rendered invisible.

I must thank all those that were involved in the visit, particularly the civil society representatives that were key in organizing site visits and civil society roundtables. Without the help of them, I would not have been able to execute my responsibility as the Special Rapporteur as I have done for this visit.

Lesotho (4 – 15 February 2019)

It was an honour for me to be the first special procedures mandate holder to undertake an official visit to Lesotho. Despite the first experience by Lesotho Government, the visit was well organized with participation of several local government bodies.

In my country visit report, I highlighted the importance of water, sanitation, and hygiene that are vital to the improvement of people’s lives and for people to make autonomous choices on their way of living and enlarging their freedom. I emphasized that inadequate access to water, sanitation and hygiene is a driver and multiplier of vulnerability that lead to negative impacts on human development. It is not only the lives of many Basotho but everyone in the world that are and can be impacted when they live without, or with only precarious, access to water, toilet facilities and hygienic products. I stressed that ensuring access to water and sanitation is a cross-cutting issue that is a prerequisite for an adequate standard of living.

I observed that Lesotho face significant gaps related to the safe access of the population to water and sanitation services at the household level and also in educational facilities and public spaces. Various pressing needs impede the Basotho from fully realizing their human rights to water and sanitation, negatively impacting numerous dimensions of human development. Without addressing water and sanitation as a national priority, it will be a long time until other social needs and interlinked human rights are fulfilled. For that reason, I emphasize that water, sanitation and hygiene must be placed on the national development agenda of Lesotho as a top priority.

Follow-up country visit reports

Mr. President,

In addition to those reports and country missions, I am presenting four addendum reports on my follow-up assessment to country visits. A year ago, at this Council, I introduced my follow-up country visit project, which is found in the Annex of my previous thematic report (A/HRC/39/55).

My official country visits are organized in a manner that I spend most of my time in the field, trying to interact as much as possible with the people. Sometimes, if permitted, I would make an unscheduled stop to speak to people such as a nomadic family that I spotted on the way. Most of the time, the visits are organized in advance but I prioritize speaking to the people, having a meal with them and to really experience their lives even if it is a short amount of time.

Due to this strong engagement with people and civil society in my visits, I found that a report presented to the Council is not enough. I felt that I have accountability to those people who took the time to meet with me and those who opened their homes to me. Together with the engagement with the government, this is one of the main reasons that made me decide to embark on a rather ambitious task of following-up to my visits. 

In the first half of 2018, I commenced the follow-up analysis of the first four official country visits undertaken since 2015, namely, Botswana, El Salvador, Portugal, and Tajikistan. I would like to thank those Governments that have engaged with the project, particularly responding to the questionnaire sent. Furthermore, I would like to thank Franciscans International, the only civil society organization that has submitted response to my questionnaire on the four follow-up activities.

I plan to continue the follow-up analysis of the official country visits undertaken. In 2020, I will focus on the follow-up analysis of at least three visit Mexico, India and Mongolia.

In order to have a more in depth discussion on my follow-up analysis project, with an emphasis on the methodological aspects, I am convening a side-event on Thursday, 12 September at 1 p.m. in room VIII, together with the four countries concerned. I invite all friends of Special Procedures to attend in order to discuss ways forward how Special Procedures can further advance human rights by conducting follow-up analysis and exercises.

Other activities

Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Finally, I wish to provide brief information on the plans for my mandate for the second half of 2019 and 2020. I will be conducting a country visit to Benin in November and I thank the Government for accepting my visit request.

My next two thematic reports will be on (1) private sector participation and (2) measuring and monitoring the progressive realization of the human rights to water and sanitation. I will have extensive consultations for the first report and the timeline for consultations are available on my webpage.

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The year 2020 is a special year for advocates of the human rights to water and sanitation. 10 years ago, in July 2010, the General Assembly adopted a resolution, which recognized that water and sanitation are human rights (GA res 64/292). Subsequently, this Council, in September 2010, affirmed this recognition (HRC res 15/9).

2020 is also the last year of my mandate. I will finish my second term in November 2020. In order to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the GA and HRC resolutions recognizing the human rights to water and sanitation and to raise awareness that water and sanitation are human rights, I would like to open a call to all stakeholders to join forces together to have a continuous celebration throughout 2020.


1/ For all my reports, a user friendly version of the summaries are available at the OHCHR webpage.