Rich countries fall short on providing safe water, sanitation for all – UN expert

Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

16 September 2011 – While three of the world’s most developed countries – United States, Japan and Slovenia – generally comply with the human right of providing their people with safe water and sanitation, they fall short when it comes to marginalized populations, a United Nations expert said today.

“I was especially shocked by what I saw in Sacramento, California, where the city decided to shut down or to restrict the opening hours of public restrooms, forcing homeless people to improvise other types of solutions to be able to exercise the right to sanitation,” UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, said in releasing her report on her visit to the US earlier this year.

“Open defecation, open urination have been criminalized. So what happens is that someone can be criminalized just because he/she does not have a place to do his physiological needs.”

She cited parallel discrimination against the Korean minority in Japan and Roma in Slovenia.

She noted that people living in the US enjoy near universal access to safe water, but warned that an estimated annual funding gap of $4 billion to $6 billion for infrastructure in the sector raises the question of whether the system will carry the country into the 21st century.

She called for targeting policies to reach the hidden and poorest segments, noting that problems of discrimination in the US water and sanitation services may intensify in the coming years with climate change and competing demands for ever scarcer resources.

“Ensuring the rights to water and sanitation for all requires a paradigm shift towards new designs and approaches that promote human rights, that are affordable and that create more value in terms of public health improvements, community development, and global ecosystem protection,” she said, calling for a systemic approach that views the water, agricultural, chemical, industrial and energy sectors as one and takes into account pollution and industrial waste.

She also urged the Government to ratify international conventions on the issue, adopt a comprehensive federal law guaranteeing the rights to safe water and sanitation without discrimination, and ensure that all municipalities provide access to safe drinking water and sanitation to homeless people, including through ensuring the opening and regular maintenance and upkeep of public restrooms, including during the night.

Turning to Japan, Ms. de Albuquerque commended the country for ensuring access to safe water and sanitation for the vast majority of the population, but said special attention was needed for groups that have been marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged. She urged the Government to adopt a comprehensive law on non-discrimination, provide access for homeless people, and eliminate discrimination against minorities and persons with disabilities.

She cited the case of a woman, almost 90 years old, in a community near Kyoto with no sewage system, who still had to collect water from a well as she did not have piped water in her house.

“And why did this happen?” Ms. de Albuquerque asked. “It happened because she belongs to a minority, she belongs to a Korean minority and because the community she lives in is entrenched in a legal dispute over the ownership of the land where they are living at. All the communities around had access to piped water, of excellent quality, as is normal in Japan, and they all had access to a sewage treatment. But this little community was deprived of this type of access because of this legal dispute.”

On Slovenia, Ms. de Albuquerque concluded that the Government was meeting its human rights obligations on water and sanitation for the vast majority of its population, but again voiced serious concerns for those who are excluded in violation of the obligations, calling for steps to provide security of tenure to all Roma communities and in the interim ensure access to safe drinking water and sanitation regardless of legal status.

She cited the case of a man who, almost with tears in his eyes, told her his daughter came home saying she did not want to go to school because the other kids teased and said she smelled.

“And the father said: ‘I know she smells, but we do not have water in our place.’ And when I asked him, ‘what did you do?,’ he said: ‘The only thing I could do was to hug her and cry with her’.”

Summing up, she said: “As human rights, all people, without discrimination, must have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, which is affordable, acceptable, available. States must continually take steps to ensure that access to these fundamental rights is guaranteed.”


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