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UN expert: Water crisis is worsening, urgent response needed

03 March 2021

GENEVA (3 March 2021) – A UN human rights expert today called for a robust and rapid global response to the world’s worsening water crisis, saying that climate change had become a “risk multiplier” - exacerbating pollution, scarcity and disasters.

“The world faces a water crisis and it is getting worse,” David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said in a report presented to the Human Rights Council.  “Human use of water, water pollution and the degradation of aquatic ecosystems continue to accelerate because of population growth, economic growth, the climate emergency, land-use change, extractivism, inefficient use of water, and weak planning, regulation and enforcement.

“Three quarters of all the natural disasters in the last 20 years were water-related, including floods, landslides and other extreme weather events.

“Given the devastating impacts of the global water crisis on people’s lives, health and human rights, remedial actions must be taken rapidly and systematically, with priority placed on improving conditions for the most vulnerable,” he said in the report Human Rights and the Global Water Crisis.

Boyd said half the world’s population live without safely managed sanitation and urgent action was also needed to help the more than three billion people who either lack access to safe drinking water, or face periodic water shortages.

“Water pollution, water scarcity, water-related disasters and damage to healthy freshwater ecosystems have major impacts on a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, water, sanitation, food, a healthy environment, an adequate standard of living, development, culture, and the rights of the child,” he said.

Boyd said there are five key steps States should take, at the national level, to address the global water crisis: prepare a state-of-the-water assessment; conduct a legal mapping initiative; develop water-related plans that incorporate a rights-based approach; implement and enforce water-related laws, regulations and standards; and evaluate progress and, if necessary, strengthen actions to ensure that human rights are fulfilled.

Two additional actions must be taken at every step of the process: building human, financial and institutional capacity; and informing and engaging the public, particularly women and vulnerable and marginalised groups.

“Safe, sufficient water and healthy aquatic ecosystems are substantive elements of the right to a healthy environment, as recognised by regional tribunals, national laws and national jurisprudence,” Boyd said. 

“A human rights perspective can serve as a catalyst for accelerated action to achieve safe and sufficient water, empower those working to protect and conserve water, and guide our actions towards a healthy and sustainable future.”

The Special Rapporteur said the Human Rights Council has the power to spark progress through a resolution recognising that every person, everywhere, has the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

David R. Boyd (Canada) was appointed Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment for a three-year term starting 1 August 2018. He is an associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability at the University of British Columbia. 

Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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[email protected]) or write to [email protected]

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / [email protected])

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