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WCC engages UN debate on right to water

WCC engages UN debate on right to water

Prof. Léo Heller, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Right to Water and Sanitation in Geneva. Photo: WCC/Dinesh Suna

16 September 2015

Affordability of water and sanitation as a human right were deliberated at a side-event during the 30th Session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland.

Faith-based perspectives were shared by Dinesh Suna, coordinator of the Ecumenical Water Network (EWN) of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The event was organized by the Permanent Missions of Brazil, Germany and Spain, with participation from the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Prof. Léo Heller.

The Special Rapporteur’s first thematic report to the Human Rights Council was on affordability – one of the five normative contents of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, along with availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality.

Along with Suna, other panellists included representatives of the World Health Organization and Human Rights Watch, as civil society organizations responding to Heller’s report.

“More often it is the poor who pay a higher percentage of their income to access water and sanitation than the rich,” said Suna. He spoke about a recent EWN-coordinated visit to the West Bank, where he said communities are paying two-thirds of their income for water and sanitation, and many people do not have access to the public water distribution system. “Upon return from our visit, in a strongly worded statement, EWN called on churches and governments to work toward ending the ‘water apartheid’ in Palestine.”

The public subsidies and cross subsides proposed by Heller in his report can be effectively implemented, Suna said. Citing the experience of India, he noted, “The current government of New Delhi has declared water to be distributed free of cost up to 20,000 liters per household, per month. Anyone who consumes above this limit has to pay the full amount of the bill at a 10 percent hike. This model, even with its loopholes, has worked well and does not deprive those who cannot pay the bills,” he said

Religious communities to address water issues

Suna emphasized that religious communities can and do contribute significantly to realizing the human right to water and sanitation. Religious leaders must be supported in that work, he urged, since they can influence large constituencies.

Suna said that water has a “strong spiritual significance” in almost all religions. “Therefore, it is not difficult to talk about water to people of faith. Laudato Si’ – the recent encyclical of Pope Francis on “Care for our Common Home”—is a case in point,” he said. “The Pope not only talks about climate change but affirms human rights to water and sanitation.”

Suna also shared examples of faith-based organizations addressing the global water and sanitation crisis. He related how GIWA (Global Interfaith WASH Alliance), a partner organization of EWN, is being influential in India’s ambitious USD 30 billion project, “Clean India Campaign,” which plans to build 120 million toilets by 2019. He also highlighted Norwegian Church Aid, a founding member of EWN, which raised USD 36 million last year to provide clean and safe water to 1 million people in 10 countries.

Suna reiterated EWN’s call for churches in Europe and North America to eliminate the use of bottled water. He said that besides extreme adverse environmental impact of plastic bottles, governments use its availability as an excuse to shun their responsibilities for providing safe drinking water to the poor through public water distribution systems. “The availability of bottled water allows the economic elites to ignore government’s failure to provide necessary infrastructure for safe drinking water. Thus, bottled water industry is an impediment in realization of human right to water,” Suna added.

Heller emphasized that “water or sanitation services are available but not affordable. People who are not able to use sufficient amount of water and maintain a latrine, turn to cheaper, unsafe sources or practices, compromising the realization of other human rights such as food, housing, health or education.”

Ecumenical Water Network urges elimination of bottled water (WCC news release of 24 July 2015)

WCC Blog: Let justice roll down like waters…

More information: Ecumenical Water Network

Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Right to Water and Sanitation