Ten years ago the UN made access to water a human right. This is difficult to implement in times of corona and climate change.
When the world community meets virtually for the General Assembly of the United Nations these days, the name Léo Heller will also be on the agenda. The Brazilian has been special rapporteur on the human right to clean drinking water and sanitation since 2014 and, as always, will provide information at the meeting of states.
The United Nations had already recognized clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right in a resolution in 2010. So now the resolution is ten years old – but can you really feel like celebrating?
According to Unicef, 2.2 of the approximately 7.8 billion people on earth do not have regular access to clean water. More than half of the population, 4.2 billion people, lack safe sanitation, 3 billion people still lack simple hand washing facilities with soap and water – Heller shared these “terrible numbers” on the anniversary in July.
Unspeakable conditions in a pandemic. For example, the people in the refugee camp Moria on Lesbos, which had just burned down, were unable to protect themselves against corona from the start – because of the completely overcrowded infrastructure, they could not follow the simplest hygiene rule, frequent hand washing.
So no progress on human rights at all? Experts can see that – but it takes time. Nevertheless, researcher Jenny Grönwall from the Stockholm Water Institute regards the resolution as “groundbreaking” – among other things, the UN Human Rights Council also stated shortly thereafter that the right to water is part of existing international law. “The result is that the governments of the UN member states that have signed the UN social pact are now obliged to implement the right to water,” said Grönwall.
And what about UN rapporteur Heller, who after all dealt with it for two terms? He already sees “some progress” and gives examples on the phone: “After the resolution was adopted, some countries have incorporated these rights into their constitution,” says Heller. “Some, not too many, maybe 15. But that was a great success because it binds the courts to it.” In addition, states have also partly transferred the relevant rights into national laws. But in many places people could not sue for their rights.
The water supply is a pressing issue in every respect. Worldwide consumption is growing steadily. According to this year’s Unesco World Water Report, it has increased sixfold over the past 100 years – and is increasing by around 1 percent per year. This is due to the growing world population, which goes hand in hand with increasing urbanization. But also because the consumption of people and the economy has changed.
At the same time, climate change with droughts, heat waves and other weather extremes is making the supply situation extremely uncertain. According to the report, 4 billion people a year already suffer from severe water shortages for at least a month. In 2019, the World Resources Institute identified the 17 countries most affected by water scarcity, including many countries in the Middle East and North Africa such as Israel, Lebanon and Libya. In 16th place is India, which with its 1.3 billion people is the second most populous country after China.
Whether there will be enough water for everyone in the future, “the question can be answered very quickly and very directly with yes, at least if we put on our global glasses,” says water expert Dietrich Borchardt from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ).
Basically, given the expected increase in population, there is actually enough fresh water in the world – also to produce enough food. However, it is “not distributed equally everywhere. And we also have people living there and we see population growth in regions that do not have the necessary water regionally.”
Often the water is not clean enough for daily consumption and for agriculture. Sometimes there are natural reasons when water bodies are too salty, and sometimes agriculture pollutes the groundwater with high nitrate levels.
The water quality is a big problem, says Borchardt. In the past, particularly in the emerging and developing countries, people were supplied with drinking water from wells and other sources – but the sewage streams were not considered. The currents might still be diverted, “but what is lagging far behind is the construction of the sewage treatment plant,” says Borchardt.
Where perhaps 100,000 people in the upper reaches of a river now have sanitary facilities, on the other hand it could be that several hundred thousand people suddenly have to deal with polluted water downstream. Borchardt calls this the “rebound effect”.
“The United Nations overlooked that, development policy overlooked that, that was overlooked in the states themselves,” says Borchardt. On behalf of the UN environmental organization, he therefore worked with colleagues on a preliminary study to assess water quality worldwide.
“The results of this study then led to a UN resolution, which the UN Environment Assembly decided two years ago – namely to work through exactly this problem on the UN agenda by 2025, to do a problem analysis, to develop possible solutions and proceed according to priorities. ”
However, water quality is not only important for human health. Because bodies of water are havens of biodiversity. “The fact is that freshwater, rivers, lakes, even groundwater, have proportionally much more biodiversity than land ecosystems or even the oceans,” says Borchardt.
In 2017, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development published a water strategy with the aim of “aligning the commitment in the water sector closely with the 2030 Agenda and with human rights to water and sanitation”.
But although Germany is an important donor in the water sector, less development funds had previously flowed into the area. Scientist Annabelle Houdret from the German Development Institute, who has studied the flow of money, it seems as if there is no longer enough political pressure. “Between 2010 and 2016, the German commitments decreased by a quarter,” she complains.
It is also important “who gets how much water under what conditions”, says Houdret. This is where what is called “governance” in development policy comes into play – in German this is translated, among other things, as “governance”.
“If, for example, you provide funds to use water better in agriculture, with drip irrigation and so on, and then only the rich farmers have access to it – then that naturally exacerbates the water shortage for the smallholders,” explains the scientist. “And if there is inadequate governance, then this water is used by the big farmers to simply extend their irrigated areas, and not to really save water, which would benefit the groundwater system and nature.”
Could the problem of lack of funding change right now – now that the pandemic has once again put water on the agenda of governments around the world?
Oh well. Scientist Houdret says that on the one hand the issue is “naturally higher on the political agenda because if you can’t wash your hands, you can’t stop the spread of the virus.” On the other hand, the economic situation of the donor countries is due to corona lockdowns and other consequences of the pandemic got worse. It’s hard to say how that will affect cash flow in the long run, Houdret said.
Many countries are also at a “crossroads” in terms of water quality, says UFZ researcher Borchardt. Together with his colleagues, he found out that “in Latin America, Africa and Asia around two thirds of the water bodies, especially running waters, have very good water quality.” These intact resources now need to be protected – by those concerned Countries, but also with the help of international donor countries.
On the one hand, the topic is very present in the United Nations, after all, it extends from the personal needs of the individual to agriculture and energy supply in extremely many areas of life. Because there is water everywhere, there is also the UN Water unit, which is supposed to coordinate the work of the sub-organizations.
But it just has little power. “Unfortunately, water is present in more than 30 sub-organizations at the United Nations – UN Water, which should actually pool it, has no political mandate for it,” complains Houdret. She would like an overarching structure that “represents the Member States at a high level.”
UN Special Rapporteur Léo Heller is cautious in keeping with his position. He praised UN Water as an “important mechanism”, even if it was “not enough”. The human rights of clean water and sanitation in particular are not given any extra sausage at the UN General Assembly, even in the pandemic. As every year, Heller will have a time slot to talk about privatization in the water sector and its risks for human rights. No less, but no more.