Water rights lawyer: Expecting more from the EU

Catarina de Albuquerque UNHCR photo.doc.jpg

This article is part of our special report Plastics and PVC.

More than one billion people don’t have safe drinking water and more than two billion lack toilets, according to the UN. Access to reliable water and sanitation are now human rights, and the UN’s special rapporteur says the European Union could be doing more – at home and abroad – to uphold these rights.

Catarina de Albuquerque is the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. De Albuquerque is a law professor at Braga and Coimbra universities in Portugal and the American University in Washington. She spoke to EURACTIV’s Timothy Spence by telephone.

Read a related article here.

Catarina de Albuquerque is the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. De Albuquerque is a law professor at Braga and Coimbra universities in Portugal and the American University in Washington. She spoke to EURACTIV’s Timothy Spence by telephone.

Read a related article here.

In September 2010, the UN adopted water and sanitation as fundamental human rights under international law. Has the 2010 declaration made a difference?

I think it has made a difference … It changed the perception that everyone counts, it made governments aware that maybe they weren’t doing everything necessary to make sure that the rights were implemented.

They knew that something was missing … that they still don’t know how to deal with it, but it has changed the perception … the perception that we want more than averages. Of course the averages are important, but everyone counts and I think this has changed.

This gave people the legal right under international law to seek access to water and sanitation. Have any cases been brought?

In Botswana, a court invoked the resolution … in a case with an indigenous group that was living in a territory and had access to a well, and [their] bore hole was destroyed by the authorities because they were living in a protected reserve. The people of this indigenous group went to the supreme court in the country which invoked the GA resolution and said that depriving this indigenous people of their access to their water could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.

The UN says nearly one-in-seven people lack adequate water supplies …

It’s worse, it’s worse than what you say – sorry. One in seven is already bad, but it’s even worse because we simply don’t know how many people don’t have access to water of quality because quality is not being monitored worldwide.

So are their legal rights being violated, these more than one billion people?

It depends. You have to analyse the concrete situation and you have to see whether a government is adopting all the necessary steps to make sure that the right is being realised. Let me give you two examples.

Bangladesh has limited financial resources and half of the population lives under the poverty line, so many of them don’t have access to safe water and sanitation. Now, if you ask me, do all the people without access to safe water in Bangladesh, do they amount to violations of the right to water and sanitation – all of them? I’m not sure because I think that the government is doing its best and it simply does not have more resources.

Now, if you ask me if the US is violating or is Slovenia violating the right to water and sanitation [for] the few that still do not have access? I would tend to say yes, because there is not a problem of available resources. The governments, the countries have enough resources to make sure that these people have access to their human rights. And the authorities, when I talked to them, they never invoked lack of resources to justify lack of access to water and sanitation to these people – like homeless people in California or the Roma in Slovenia.

So you cannot make an overall statement saying we one billion human rights violations. I’m sure because sometimes the governments are doing all they can and they are in the process of making sure that people are getting access to the water, and maybe they are getting some access to water, which is not perfect, which is not sufficient to fully fulfil their rights, but maybe it does not amount to a violation. We have to see on a case-by-case basis.

Looking through news reports, I am reading about droughts in Britain, Spain and Greece, and China is facing severe water problems. If water is a human right, what should be done to deal with what seems to be less of a cyclical problem and more of what seems to be an ongoing climate threat?

My conviction is that lack of access to water is a problem of power and not a problem of scarcity. In general terms, this is true. When we all go to water-scarce countries, rich people always have access to water – a five-star hotel where the tourist are have water, the golf courses have water. It’s always the same people who are deprived of water – even in water-rich countries or neighbourhoods.

Having said this, I agree that we are witnessing a trend of decreasing water resources. This means that the situation of deprived people and more vulnerable people is becoming even more critical. What should states do? Number one, they have to be guided by the human right to water and sanitation, and in my opinion they have to prioritise those who have no access and those who are the most vulnerable, stigmatised, forgotten. That’s step one.

And maybe you need to introduce measures and certain policies to make sure that the water gets more expensive for those who use too much water, and states have to make investments in rainwater harvesting, for example, and in introducing double-pipe systems – like what you see in Japan – where the water coming out of our showers and baths is reused for the toilets. …

We have to draw up these types of ideas on a much more widespread basis. Why should we be using safe drinking water – potable water – to flush down toilets. This does not make much sense to me, especially if we are water scare and getting more and more scarcity.

Do you think that is a problem of policymaking that these things are not being required, for example in Europe, where there are resources to do that?

There is a problem at the policymaking level. It is relatively easy – rainwater harvesting and the reuse of rainwater for watering gardens – we just don’t do it. For the dual pipes, I admit that it can be expensive in all buildings … but for new buildings, I think it’s possible and it could be done. … And I think policymakers have an important role to play.

Looking at the most recent development statistics, the big donors like Europe and United States provided about $8 billion for water and sanitation. That is not even 6% of total development aid. Is that enough given the unfilled needs in developing countries?

It’s not enough and I have to say that I am very worried about this issue. Number one, my last report to the General Assembly was precisely devoted to this issue of financing the sector. … My conclusion is there is not enough money being invested in the sector and that the money that is being spent – and let’s take the example of the donors – is not properly targeted.

On the one hand we need more money to make sure everyone gets access to water and sanitation, but on the other hand we need to target the money that we are donating. … What you see, if you look at the US or Japan, is that most of the money is being spent in the middle-income countries. And if you look at the mid-income countries … are they targeting the poorest? The answer is no, not even.

I would have nothing against investments in Costa Rico and in Uruguay, for example, for water and sanitation if these investments would target the poorest. But that’s not even the case. The money is being targeted to upgrading already existing access by the middle class in these countries.

I think this has to change and these were some of the recommendations when I visited the US on a country mission, and Japan. I said you have to target the poorest people to make sure they get access to water and sanitation.

I heard very bad news regarding the European Union. Number one, that the EU will withdraw its cooperation with development aid to Latin America … which also means water and sanitation. This worries me a lot. I came three days ago from Uruguay, which is a middle-income country with a good level of development … but Uruguay and other Latin American countries need more support to make sure that they do the things the right way. They need support. … And if the EU and others are simply withdrawing from Latin America, I think it can be very detrimental for the progress of rights in this country.

It sounds like you are contradicting yourself. You are saying that more money should go to poorest classes and not the middle-income classes, and yet isn’t that the EU’s intent – to help the poorest countries?

I’m not saying the intentions are bad, I’m saying the outcomes are bad. We have to target not countries but people. I understand that the percentage of help going to countries where the numbers of poor are higher, the percentage of aid has also to be higher. I understand that, I accept it and I agree with that.

But we cannot simply withdraw from other countries, like in Latin America, because there are still people – and a significant number of people – living in poverty and our objective, not only in Latin America, should be to make sure that the governments are held [accountable] and empowered to help them.

Subscribe to our newsletters