(Post by Abby Waldorf) In 2010, the United Nations declared water and sanitation a human right. The UN Human Rights Council subsequently passed a resolution in 2011 recognizing the human right to water and sanitation and reaffirming that “States have the primary responsibility to ensure the full realization of all human rights, and must take steps…to the maximum of its available resources, to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to safe drinking water and sanitation by all appropriate means.” By regarding water and sanitation as a human right, governments are now held responsible for playing a significant role in the provision of such services. Current rates of government expenditure on water and sanitation services are insufficient and will need to increase in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 and to comply with the UN Human Rights Resolution.
The governments of many developing countries focus more of their spending on health and education than on the provision of water and sanitation services, which results in inadequate financial commitment from such domestic governments to this issue (WaterAid 2011). The figure below from WaterAid’s 2011 Off Track, Off Target Report shows a breakdown of the government expenditure on education, health, and water, sanitation, and hygiene as a percentage of its GDP as of 2009. Every single country studied shows WASH expenditure is significantly lower than health and education.
In order to meet the MDGs for water and sanitation, governments in Sub-Saharan Africa will need to spend 3.5% of GDP each year to achieve the MDGs for water and sanitation (WaterAid 2011). The red marker in the figure below marks the jump to 3.5% in GDP expenditure needed by African countries to meet these goals.
While this is a dramatic increase in expenditure, according to the UN, there is considerable payback for aid invested in WSS. Achieving the MDGs could result in US $3 to US $34 per US $1 invested and additional improvements to drinking-water quality could result in a payback of US $5 to US$ 60 per US $1 invested, which provides incentive to developing countries and aid organizations to invest in WSS (United Nations Water for Life 2012).
While the declaration of water as a human right has financial implications for governments of developing countries, the topic also ignites concern for gender implications. The sensitive nature of making water and sanitation a human right has been a growing topic of discussion in the women and water community. At the Women’s Preconference to the World Water Forum in March 2012, professionals in the women and water field developed key demands for the Rio +20 Conference in June 2012 to include women in the decision-making process for water and sanitation projects. Conference attendees acknowledged the slow integration of gender sensitivity in water and sanitation projects (Waldorf 2012). They indicated that women are often excluded from key decision-making processes in the planning and implementation of many development projects, harming both women and the effectiveness of the projects themselves, as women are not only the primary beneficiaries of such projects but often essential to the success of such projects. Declaring water and sanitation a human right, and consequently placing the responsibility for service provision on governments, threatens the efficacy and sustainability of projects if governments do not adhere to principles of gender sensitivity in the provision of WSS services. Governments must also be sensitive to criticism that grassroots organizations and NGOs are more successful in the development space because they gain trust within communities from face-to-face interactions and can better incorporate the needs of the community (Fernando 2006).
We at wH2O look forward to hearing about how gender roles are integrated in discussions at Rio+20 regarding water as a human right. We look forward to hearing back from UPenn students and others from the conference on this topic. Please share you comments/ thoughts below!
United Nations General Assembly. “64/292. The human right to water and saniation.” Resolution, General Assembly, United Nations, 2010.
WaterAid. “Off-track, off-target: Why investment in water, sanitation and hygiene is not reaching those who need it most.” WaterAid Report. WaterAid. November 2011. http://www.wateraid.org/documents/Off-track-off-target.pdf.
United Nations Water for Life. Financing Water. 2012. www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/financing.shtml.
About the author: Abby Waldorf graduated with Honors from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2012 with a B.A. in Sustainability and Environmental Management and a minor in Economics. Her senior thesis focused on the gender implications of using microfinance as a funding mechanism for water supply and sanitation. During her time at Penn, Abby was a founding member of the umbrella association for environmental groups, the Student Sustainability Alliance at Penn, and has been featured on Penn’s sustainability website for her accomplishments within the community. Abby is the Managing Director of wH2O and will be working for the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in Sri Lanka beginning in July 2012. In March 2012, Abby received the Gutmann Doyle Research Award and Greg and Susan Walker Fund Grant to present at the Women’s Preconference to the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille, France. Abby loves travelling and has worked in Peru, Ghana, Australia, and India.