Kiribati must urgently prioritise sanitation to save lives – UN expert

TARAWA/GENEVA (25 July 2012) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, has called on the Government of Kiribati to address the human rights to safe water and sanitation as a national priority.
“I was shocked by the child mortality rate in Kiribati, which is the highest in the Pacific,” Ms. de Albuquerque said. “If the country seriously wants to reduce preventable deaths of children, then sanitation and hygiene are two vital issues to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

In Kiribati, a large proportion of the population practises open defecation, which means that people use the sea and bushes as their toilets. This has serious implications for people’s health, as human waste spreads diseases. This is particularly the case in overcrowded South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati. Inadequate waste water management systems for existing toilets, a lack of hand washing habits and open defecation result in an explosive combination leading to many preventable child deaths.

“A first step to improve the situation is to explicitly assign responsibilities for sanitation to a Government department and to provide it with the necessary human and financial resources,” the Special Rapporteur, who is in Kiribati on official mission, said. “Every individual in Kiribati has the human right to access drinking water and adequate sanitation that is accessible, available, affordable, acceptable and safe.”

Studies have shown that access to a sufficient quantity of water improves personal hygiene and hence reduces cases of diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases, which are major killers of children. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur noted that Kiribati has scarce water resources.

“The current water supply situation is unsustainable. Urgent measures have to be adopted to make sure that all Kiribatians have access to a sufficient quantity of water for their personal and domestic uses,” Ms. de Albuquerque said. “I advise the Government not to concentrate all efforts in one single solution, but rather to diversify the options to address water scarcity challenges. This will contribute to both affordability and sustainability.”

“One of the options is the increase of the country’s rainwater harvesting and storage capacity. The efforts to reserve the precious groundwater sources need to be boosted as well,” she added.

On the effects of climate change, Ms. de Albuquerque also appealed to the Government of Kiribati to place a strong focus on identifying the actual needs of its people, including women and children, through participatory discussions and to seek targeted international assistance to address the identified needs. “I observed that the Government’s commitment at the international level is not being fully translated into concrete actions to improve access to water and sanitation for the people of Kiribati.”

“I also call upon the international community to continue to assist Kiribati in its adaptation measures as well as in its planning for the very near future,” she said. “Putting the rights to water and sanitation at the centre of discussions and planning will promote an adaptation process that is people-centred.”

For the full press statement by Ms. de Albuquerque, please visit:


Catarina de Albuquerque is the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. She was appointed by the Human Rights Council in 2008. Ms. de Albuquerque is a Professor at the Law Faculties of the Universities of Braga and Coimbra and a Senior Legal Adviser at the Office for Documentation and Comparative Law, an independent institution under the Prosecutor General’s Office. Learn more, visit:

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