Header image for news printout

Statement by Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation at the seventy-fourth session of the General Assembly

New York, 18 October 2018

Mr. President, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to present today, before the General Assembly, my report on the impact of mega-projects on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Mega-projects have a long-lasting impact on various aspects of the society, including human lives, the economy and the environment. Such projects are promoted through a narrative of contributing towards the enhancement of the livelihood of the people, but they often impede the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation. In particular, the extensive usage of land required for the implementation and the massive exploitation of water resources may have dire consequences for the availability and quality of water and, in general, for the way the population accesses water and sanitation services.

During the preparation of the report, I observed as a main trend that there exists imbalance of power between those adversely affected by megaprojects and the proponents thereof, who frame them as solutions for development. The affected population is often reluctant to accept such projects as the most suitable solution for development, since for them the negative impacts exceed the benefits provided. At times, this polarized view of megaprojects further aggravates social conflicts and attack against human rights defenders, violating a number of their rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. It is essential to regulate such projects with an emphasis on addressing power imbalances and prevention and mitigation of their adverse effects on human rights.

The potential negative impacts include reduction in water availability or in accessibility to water services, due to over-exploitation, blockage, deviation or quality deterioration. The impact on availability, accessibility and quality of water in turn can affect other aspects of the human rights to water and sanitation, such as affordability, acceptability, privacy and dignity, and other rights, such as the rights to health, housing and education. These also affect other interlinked rights arising from social conflict, particularly due to power imbalances between the proponents of megaprojects and those negatively affected.

In my report, I introduce the framework of megaproject cycle for the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation, consisting of seven stages, each of which entailing different impacts, challenges and enabling factors to realize the human rights to water and sanitation. The first two stages – the macro-planning stage and the licensing or approval stage – refer to the general procedures that are found in a country and the subsequent stages – from the planning stage, construction, short-term operation and long-term operation to the decommissioning of megaprojects – describe the stages that are relevant to a specific megaproject. The cycle includes a cross-cutting stage, namely, assessment at the different stages of a given megaproject.

I clarify each stage of the megaproject cycle and provide a list of questions, similar to a checklist, that constitute guidelines for accountable actors to implement their human rights obligations and responsibilities. Such questions stem from existing human rights norms and principles and are therefore aimed at providing guidance as opposed to creating new standards or obligations.

To give you an example, for the macroplanning stage at which national development agenda and plans are established, together with the identification of the means to achieve the related goals, I pose the question “Has a comparative study examining different alternative options to megaprojects been carried out at the macro-planning stage?”

The inclusion of megaprojects in national policies and strategies is often taken for granted as the natural way for development to take place. However, this approach ignores different ways of conceptualizing development. States must consider both the advantageous and the adverse effect of megaprojects on human rights. Such a balancing exercise should be based on the principle of necessity, which requires States to reach a decision as to whether the chosen megaproject is the most suitable option for scaling up economic growth and the least intrusive measure, which will not undermine the human rights, in particular the access to water and sanitation services. Where several policy options are available, States parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights must adopt the option that least restricts rights under the Covenant.

Another example relates to the planning and designing stage, which elaborates the project specifications and involves the selection of strategies, means, methods and resources for project implementation, as well as identification of the location for the site operation and construction. One of the question of this stage is “Are mitigation and preventive measures included at the planning stage?”

States should put an emphasis on preventive measures to avoid or mitigate the consequences for human rights, in particular, the rights to water and sanitation, rather than take the risk of such negative impacts. Contingency plans for disasters caused by the collapse of such projects should be addressed at the planning stage.

I recommend that accountable actors and civil society use this list of questions to address prevention and mitigation of risks arising from megaprojects and to ensure that human rights are complied with at every stage of their lifecycle. I have produced a user-friendly version of the report as well as a one-pager of all the questions.

* * *

The year 2020 is a special year for all those committed to the human rights to water and sanitation. 10 years ago, in July 2010, the General Assembly adopted a resolution, which explicitly recognized that water and sanitation are human rights (GA res 64/292). Subsequently, the Human Rights Council, in September 2010, reaffirmed 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 and to raise awareness that water and sanitation are human rights, I would like to open a call to all stakeholders to join me in celebrating the milestone.

* * *

For my last report to the General Assembly next year at the 75th session, I will focus on the topic of privatization and the human rights to water and sanitation. I have started an extensive consultation for the preparation of this report and the timeline for consultations are available on my webpage.