Claims and realities of implementing the human right to water – FAMA and WWF8

Consensus has been achieved that water and sanitation are human rights, but problems to realise these rights remain. Different views on how clean water and sanitation for all can be achieved impede progress for the most vulnerable and marginalised. Global and abstract debates sometimes seem far from local realities, but can have big impacts. Vice versa, local actions can change the global debate.

Every three years two World Water Forums take place to discuss global water issues and problems. This year in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, between 17 and 23 March and always around World Water Day 22 March. The “official” Forum – WWF 8 – is set up by private water companies, the “alternative” Forum – FAMA 2018 – is organized as a response by water justice activists to challenge the biased view of the corporations towards water. ‘Water justice’ does not only aspire that the human right to water and sanitation is fulfilled, but also that control over water sources must be in public hands as a collective right. Corporations claim that they can promote the human right to water and sanitation by selling water and managing water resources.


In 2013 the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) called “Right2Water” collected 1.9 million signatures and passed the threshold in 13 EU Member States. The ECI demanded the European Commission to implement the human right to water and sanitation in European legislation, following the United Nations General Assembly resolution of 2010 in which the human right to water and sanitation was recognised. The “Right2Water” campaign was organised by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and supported by a large number of NGOs, public water companies and water activists in Europe. It aimed to shift the focus of the European Commission from a market approach to rights-based approach in European water policy. With the slogan “water is a public good; not a commodity!” it urged that water services in Europe should not be liberalised. Trying to counter the support that “Right2Water” was gaining, the two big multinationals in water (Suez and Veolia) claimed that they were the ‘real’ promoters of the human right to water and sanitation and that “Right2water” was fuelled by a ‘German public lobby’. It could not stop the success of the ECI: Water services were excluded from the concession directive.

What is the problem with liberalisation and privatisation?

Creating a market undermines the objective of universal service provision. Market principles bear the risk of exclusion of the poor that cannot afford the new water price.  If in these cases governments would subsidize water supply to the poor, it would imply that the governments subsidize the profits of the corporation. The ’Cochabamba Water War’ is the most prominent example of a water conflict following from privatization of water services, but many more conflicts have risen over water in the past decades. Strong market failures provide an overwhelming justification for public regulation and ownership of assets. At the World Water Forum in Mexico City in 2006 private water companies issued a statement recognizing the right to water, but in 2012, at the World Water Forum in Marseille this statement appeared void when the private companies declared that it was ‘logic’ that people who had no money would get no water. If profit comes at first place, human rights obviously become a secondary concern. A human right to water does not imply that water should be for free, although this is at odds with cultural and religious views on water in many parts of the world. Moreover, drinking water is a non-substitutable resource, essential for life and a networked water supply is a natural monopoly that should not be in the hands of profit driven corporations.

Write “Water”, speak “Democracy”.

Strengthening the democratic, public character of water services is fundamentally at odds with the currently dominant neoliberal model, which subordinates ever more areas of life to the harsh logic of global markets. Claimed benefits of privatisation appear to be false in many cases. A study by the World Bank said: “there is no statistically significant difference between the efficiency performance of public and private operators in this sector”. Public-Private partnerships (PPPs) are increasingly controversial due to conflicts between the private sector’s commercial objectives and local developmental objectives. These conflicts have led to widespread social resistance. Lack of transparency over finance, service management and investment, is a motivation for public authorities to terminate PPP contracts. This is increasingly happening in large cities around the world. The case of Berlin is exemplary. PPPs, presented as form of cooperation appear to be privatisation in disguise.

The recognition of human rights to water and sanitation is forthcoming from long ongoing struggles for social and environmental justice. It is both a result (e.g. Uruguay, Bolivia) as well as a driver for these struggles (e.g. “Right2Water”, Indonesia). Although the human rights to water and sanitation are both being claimed by proponents of a social economy as well as by proponents of a free market economy, it is clear that the realization of these human rights is more advanced by social public policies. It is a support to citizens if they legally can claim their rights and it shows a government’s commitment when human rights are enshrined in constitution or regulation. A legal framework converts political intentions into enforceable rights and obligations, thereby moving the discourse ‘from one of charity to one of entitlement’.

Diverging world-views, different realities

The struggle for access to and control over water does not only take place at local level where services must be provided, but also at global and ‘meta’ level in the fight between the organisers of the World Water Forum (WWF) and the organisers of the Alternative World Water Forum (FAMA). Corporations dominate the debates at the World Water Forum, while activists that campaign for local and public control over “their” local water sources are campaigning at the alternative water forum. The diverging views (‘commodity’ vs. ‘commons’) make it hard to reach consensus on the much-needed global water architecture that should unify each and every organisation’s effort to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. A global water architecture should align all UN, global, regional, national and local institutions that work on water issues and aspire to achieve the SDGs, but this seems far away.

New forms of cooperation.

The resolutions of the UNGA in 2010 has not only encouraged states to increase their domestic efforts to realize the human rights to water and sanitation, they have also served to mobilise resources – above all in specific developed countries which cooperate with developing countries in the area of water. Good examples of solidarity that helps to realise the human rights to water and sanitation are shown in public-public partnerships (PUPs). These ‘alternatives’ for public-private contracts ensure equality of partners and focus on the poor and marginalised. Making progress to achieve universal, equitable access to clean water and sanitation – realizing these human rights – requires a socially just economic model. PUPs, as examples of solidarity cooperation, therefore merit more attention and support. By making a change at local level in public water services and resource management, they can help to shift the public economy from a neo-liberal model of competition – with a few winners and many losers – to a social model with not-for-profit collaboration and fair, shared prosperity for all.

Why we need to talk about shit

Today, about a billion people worldwide face the indignity of defecating in the open. The lack of clean and safe school toilets leads to higher dropout among girls once they reach puberty. Diarrhoeal diseases – a direct result of poor sanitation – claim more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. A taboo topic often shrouded in ignorance and silence, toilet sanitation begs for open discourse and social awareness in its global implications on health, education and safety. Jack Sim asks the provocative question: what would it take to mobilise our society and see social change in this sorely neglected issue, and what can we do about it? Widely known as Mr Toilet, Jack Sim broke the global taboo of toilet and sanitation by bringing the agenda to global media centre-stage. After attaining financial independence, he retired from business to devote the rest of his life to social work. In 1998 he founded the Restroom Association of Singapore and the World Toilet Organization (WTO) in 2001, a global network and service platform for toilet associations to promote sound sanitation and public health policies. WTO declared November 19th as World Toilet Day which has now been adopted as Official UN World Toilet Day.

Watch Jack Sim explaining why we need to talk about shit >    

Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Rome 2017

Final Statement,  result of the Workshop ‘Human Right to Water: An interdisciplinary focus and contributions on the central role of public policies in water and sanitation management’ held on February 23rd and 24th, 2017 at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican City and organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences with Cátedra del Diálogo y la Cultura del Encuentro (Chair of Dialogue and Culture of Encounter). The Final Statement was signed by His Holiness Pope Francis, the organizers and participants as detailed at the bottom of the Statement.

In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis presents the main issues related to the human right to water, including the lack of access to drinking water, sanitation, and continued inequality of quality and availability of resources. The encyclical also refers to the repercussions of droughts and floods on food production, the prevalence of pollution-related diseases and warns us against a “green economy” that is often green not because it is ecological, but because it treats nature as a commodity.

The socio-environmental crisis that we face arises from environmentally irresponsible human action that has resulted in spreading socio-environmental injustice, increasing inequality and poverty, and a lack of adequate food supply. Throughout the world, the lack of access to safe water and the pollution of water sources seriously and increasingly affects quality of life, particularly women, the poorest, and the most vulnerable. In addition, thousands of people put their lives at risk by demanding the right to water or by actively defending natural resources.

Production models focused on fossil fuels are directly responsible for global warming. Climate change, like water scarcity, is a consequence of human action. The degradation of the environment has increased exponentially and today the world faces the consequences of economic models of production that “privatise the profits and socialise the losses”. In regions such as the Amazon, deforestation and pollution of water sources have accelerated in recent decades as a result of the development of mining, production and developing infrastructure, leading to potential conflicts varying in nature and scale.

Many cultures, societies and religions of the world recognise water as a spiritual and material principle of life, thus finding common ground. They also recognise that everything in the universe is connected and that the care for the common good requires solutions based on cooperation, solidarity and a culture of dialogue. On this basis, new paradigms must be built in which humanity does not claim unlimited and disrespectful dominion over nature, but rather exercises a collective responsibility.

Those most affected by the scarcity of water and a lack of basic sanitation must be involved in the developments towards universal access. Everyone is called to participate actively in caring for our common home, each with their own experiences, initiatives and capabilities. Households, neighbourhoods, cities, regions and countries, with small and large responses and actions, are called to guarantee universal access to safe water and sanitation, and to exercise the responsibility to our fellow human beings and to the generations to come.

Ensuring the human right to safe water is essential for the exercise of other rights such as food, health and welfare. Human rights provide a normative basis and constitute a source of authority and legitimacy for realising universal and fair access to this resource. The inclusion of the right to clean water and sanitation in international agreements, instruments and declarations is indispensable for the development of human life. For this reason, the recognition of access to clean water and sanitation as a fundamental human right is indisputable.

Although the challenge is great, we rely on solidarity and collective sensitivity, fruits of the dialogue of philosophies, knowledge, spiritualties and epistemologies. There are currently many valuable projects and initiatives working towards the care of our common home and we have a better understanding of the problem, not primarily as an issue of scarcity but as an inadequate management of the resource. Today we know that the use of fossil fuels in energy generation contributes to climate change but we have inherited a significant body of scientific knowledge, as well as clean energy technologies that can help mitigate global warming. Today, we know what we have to do: develop another paradigm of development, centred on the care of our common home, centred on solidarity, equality and justice in the use and management of water.

Many of today’s economic and production systems, ways of life, and consumption behaviours cause environmental degradation. We need an education that fosters a cultural change around the recognition of the other and the defence of water and ecosystems; we urge a cultural change in which science and technology can make fundamental contributions to the preservation of water and its universal use. More effective legal tools are needed to protect common assets and a human rights perspective can ensure that water supply and sanitation do not fall under the influence of powerful groups, but are safeguarded by binding legal obligation.

We need governments that have the will and political force to generate the necessary changes, following the moral imperative of the Sustainable Development Goals approved after Pope Francis’ address to the United Nations, in particular points 6 and 14. This requires a collective commitment to the creation of global, state and local public policies that incorporate real and effective participation in the full exercise of citizenship and the concern for the common good. Today it is urgent to reach a consensus on models of governance that allow for the formation of an authentic culture of water. Governments must also ensure the safety and lives of all those who work for the right to water and the preservation of nature.

The recognition of rights must be met by a universal responsibility for action. This implies changes in lifestyle, production and consumption, as well as the development of renewable and clean energy. The provision of safe water in necessary quantities and the collection of wastewater and its disposal by environmentally adequate means, contribute to the care of our common home and people’s dignity, whilst also contributing to the development of responsible citizenship amongst present and future generations.

Each of us, scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, labourers for humanity, must be aware that the threat of climate change demands concrete and urgent measures. In the encyclical, Pope Francis proposes the development of an integral ecology for the care of our common home, inviting a collective and joint mobilisation for the defence of universal access to safe water by governments, institutions, the private sector, workers and societies around the world. Uniting with a collaborative commitment and collective action is necessary to demonstrate the urgency of the change of the instrumental rationality towards a true intergenerational solidarity. We call for the implementation of an integral ecology, incorporating environmental, economic, social and cultural dimensions, for fostering a culture of encounter, which acknowledges the human right to water and sanitation. Science, culture, politics and technology all have a part to play in achieving societies of justice, solidarity and equality, committed to the care for our common home.


Papa Francisco –  Card. Claudio Hummes –  Mons. Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo – José Luis Lingeri –  Luis Liberman – Gabriela Sacco

Jerónimo Ainchil – Alejandra Alberdi – H. Dogan Altinbilek – Cristian Asinelli – Juan Ayala – Adrián Bernal –  Asit Biswas – Emilia Bocanegra – Rutgerd Boelens – Valeria Bubas – Rebeca Céspedes – Keshav Chandra – Michael Cohen – Ismael Cortazzo – Elena Cristofori –  Emilio Custodio – Magalid Cutina – Leandro Del Moral – Gabriel Eckstein – Emanuele Fantini – María Feliciana Fernández García –  Ana Ferreira – Alfredo Ferro – Héctor Floriani – Enrique García – Alberto Garrido – Peter Gleick – Adrián González – Quentin Grafton – Joyeeta Gupta – Pedro Hughes – Giulia Lanzarini – Marcelo Lorelli –  José Luis Inglese – José Paulino Martínez Cabrera –  Ugo Mattei – Hugo Maturana – David Molden – Alberto Monfrini – Daniel Nolasco – Virginia Oliver – Rosa Pavanelli – Ivo Poletto – Pedro Romero – Carlos Salamanca – Farhana Sultana – Danya Tavela – Cecilia Tortajada – Jorge Triana Soto – Jerry van den Berge – Gianni Vattimo – Virgilio Viana – Alessia Villanucci – Martin Von Hildebrand – Aaron Wolf – Ana Zagari – Christian Ferrando – Christiane Torloni – José Romero – Laureano Quiroga

Final declaration in Spanish


Abstract Right2Water presentation in Vatican

Uniting diversity to build Europe’s “Right2Water” movement

From April 2012 to September 2013 the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) “Right2Water” ran and collected 1.9 Million signatures across Europe. With that result it became the first ever successful ECI. It allowed the organisers to put their issue on the European political agenda. “Right2Water” proposed to implement the human right to water and sanitation in European legislation. The European Commission had to respond to “Right2Water”. The official response was as a cold shower to the organisers: The Commission stated that many of the suggestions were already part of EU policy and that it would not change or amend any existing legislation.

The paper looks into how the ECI became successful from a point of awareness raising and a social movement perspective. The trade unions in public services started the ECI to challenge European neo-liberal policies. “Right2Water” stated that “Water is a human right and a public good, not a commodity!”

The ECI was supported by over 250 organisations and thousands of people that campaigned all over Europe. Water services are essential to all people and must be provided without discrimination that cannot be left to the market. This is the point that “Right2Water” tried to make in stating that water services cannot be liberalised. “Right2Water” gave a new momentum to social movements that were active on water issues and extended the focus of social movements that did not pay attention to water until then. It united a huge diversity of organisations.


Tracking progress towards Universal Health Coverage

WHO’s Universal Health Coverage data portal shows where countries need to improve access to services, and where they need to improve information.

The portal features the latest data on access to health services globally and in each of WHO’s 194 Member States, along with information about equity of access. Next year WHO will add data on the impact that paying for health services has on household finances.