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The fundamental shortfalls of pursuing the human right to water and sanitation

A commentary on water governance, SDG 6, and rights to water

14 June 2021

Phoebe Holmes


2020 marked the ten-year anniversary of the recognition of the human right to water and sanitation (HRtWS) by the UN General Assembly. The work done by a range of organisations who are committed to realising the HRtWS has been immense, acting as a great driver and focal point around which plenty of crucial change has emerged. Human rights help create legally-binding, enforceable responsibilities for duty bearers. They are of huge strategic importance in justifying the means to protest, enabling and empowering otherwise vulnerable communities to hold their leaders to account.

Although these advantages are evident, it can equally be argued that the human rights narrative is not necessarily the correct avenue to adopt in combatting social inequities relating to water claims. In considering this, insights from Roa-Garcia and Fraser are particularly useful in politically framing why the HRtWS does not go far enough. Roa-Garcia compares counter-neoliberal to post-neoliberal movements, whilst Fraser makes a similar analytical distinction, instead labelling them affirmative and transformative remedies. Counter-neoliberal movements (or for Fraser, affirmative remedies) oppose a particular neoliberal manifestation, but leave intact deep-seated power structures and governing- governed dichotomies that treat recipients of aid as deficient. This is true of the HRtWS. Post-neoliberal movements (or transformative remedies), contrastingly, are more ambitious in challenging mainstream notions, and moving away from Eurocentric modernity visions by shattering stigmas of supposed needy groups. The very essence of a post-neoliberal approach is its incompatibility with the dominant paradigm, in that it swaps out a privileging of technocratic insight towards acknowledgement of alternative epistemologies and ontologies.

In an insightful piece by Karen Bakker, it is explained that ‘rights talk’ originates from individualistic, anthropocentric, Westernised philosophies. This means that enacting the HRtWS still leaves the water sector open to the involvement of commercial players who prioritise profit over people. The UN General Assembly itself adopts a neutral stance on private sector participation in meeting the HRtWS. The issue of human rights being human-oriented is also problematic for many cultures across the globe. Placing our own species’ water claims above the needs of other living things (inclusive of all flora and fauna) goes against the fundamental values of many indigenous and other native groups, who do not disassociate their own health from the wellbeing of the ecosystem in its entirety. Another key criticism of the human rights approach is that there exists an extreme gap between words and action. Low government capacity in many countries in the global South means there is a large difference between constitutionally recognising the HRtWS, and actually manifesting it to guarantee grassroots change, protection or equitable access.

The above outlined incompatibilities between the HRtWS and socio-political grassroots realities, however, are not confined to the global South. Although water security scholarship has maintained a spotlight on poorer regions, a relational approach to analyses uncovers that institutionalised marginalisation surpasses preconceived geographical or developmental distinctions. Certain groups residing in high-income countries, where human rights standards are often heralded, frequently experience unequitable access to clean, affordable and safe water. These patterns exhibit the same systemic tendencies that characterise (in)access to water in the South, often originating from racialised gaps in wealth and power.  

A final limitation to consider when pursuing the HRtWS is that it can have a homogenising effect that does not adequately serve the nuanced demands of alternative cultures.  The Western origins of the human rights approach means that certain values and uses are prioritised. In the context of water, needs recognised by political leaders in Europe and the U.S. undercut the many other uses of water that have been central to the identity of indigenous societies for millennia. This includes religious and spiritual perceptions of water, as well as age-old water institutions and rituals that centre around collective management rather than individual consumption. In this sense, the HRtWS is a tool whereby, if not handled carefully, can permit and facilitate cultural oppression.

This is by no means to slam the achievements of those who have worked tirelessly towards protecting and ensuring the human rights of communities around the world. It is rather to point out that, in light of the mentioned constraints, it is important that the HRtWS is advocated for in a way that is not naïve to its neo-colonial underpinnings, and the potential harm this might cause. If we are to truly harness and sustain the benefits that the human rights movement has achieved, these efforts must be coupled with other policies aimed at breaking down deeper structural inequalities that are too often normalised and overlooked.

When advocating for the HRtWS, it is crucial to do this contextually rather than in the abstract, and take the time to understand the perspectives of the beneficiaries of WASH development projects. Ensuring that water is available for drinking, washing and irrigating is essential, but we most open this narrative to be conducive to the many other water uses that exist. This will mean bringing marginalised, non-Western beliefs surrounding water into the mainstream. To overcome the individualism that human rights narratives can promote, community groups and water user collectives must too be given resources to strengthen their organisational capacity. Ensuring that the HRtWS is more than just a declaration will mean investing heavily in the governments and justice systems of the global South, as well as in education to create legally-aware local populations who are able to collectively organise and challenge duty bearers should their entitlements not be met.

Perhaps most importantly, we must break down the human-centric nature of climate and development narratives. We can support this necessary long-term shift in perspective whilst still advocating for the HRtWS, through educating ourselves on the interdependence between humans and the wider ecosystem, and being mindful when making policy decisions that have adverse environmental effects. For centuries, a disassociated view of society and nature has been accepted. Separation of the water needs of humans and the water needs of the environment represents a defining difference between indigenous and mainstream perspectives. In understanding the indigenous viewpoint, and in approaching climate and water management through a truly holistic, interconnected manner, we will give space to the voices that have been discounted for so long. These are the very voices who have highlighted the inextricable relationship between water and climate, and we have much to learn from this catalogue of knowledge, built up over millennia, of intricate and intimate connections to land and natural systems.

In its passivity in tackling systemic inequalities, the human rights approach alone opens up too narrow a space to generate meaningful political change for marginalised indigenous communities. We must be conscious of the assumptions that underpin these narratives. When combined with resolutions to combat the structural inequities and political marginalisation faced by vulnerable groups, the human right to water and sanitation can be a rewarding tool. However, without an active strategy to counteract the limitations touched upon in this piece, the human rights approach will not go far enough.

Bio: Phoebe Holmes holds a Masters in Global Development from the University of Leeds. She has previously worked with INGO WaterAid in researching access to water, sanitation and hygiene for marginalised communities across the global South.


The opinions in this piece are those of the writer; the Hub encourages an international debate with many voices.

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