Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation to the 21st session of the Human Rights Council

12 September 2012

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here today before you for this interactive dialogue, and to offer an update on the activities undertaken in accordance with my mandate. I will also present four reports for your consideration. The main thematic report focuses on the links between stigma and the human rights framework as it relates to the rights to water and sanitation. The three mission reports cover my visits to Namibia, Senegal and Uruguay.

I continue to be positively encouraged by the growing interest from member states and many stakeholders to incorporate the human rights to water and sanitation in legislation, policy and planning. I was also encouraged by the positive developments I witnessed over the past year in terms of explicit recognition, by some States, of the human rights to water and sanitation. Internationally, I welcome the consensual reaffirmation of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation in the Rio + 20 Outcome Document. I hope these advances will continue to be at the forefront of any global negotiations dealing with human development.

During the last year, I have been involved in numerous activities, and would like to highlight two which I consider to have had a particular impact

Firstly, I have been contributing to the discussions among water, sanitation and development professionals, in the context of the Joint Monitoring Programme for safe drinking water and sanitation, co-chaired by WHO and UNICEF. Target-setting and the related monitoring have to improve in the future. The content of the human right to water and sanitation - namely the principle of non-discrimination, but also safety, affordability, accessibility, availability and acceptability - must be integrated in any post-2015 global development agenda. My upcoming report to the General Assembly will provide some concrete recommendations on equality and non-discrimination.

A second outcome of my work this year is the publication of the book on good practices, “On the right track”. It offers a comprehensive compilation of initiatives and practices for the implementation of the rights to water and sanitation. This book is available online in English, French and Spanish and has been distributed to every Permanent Mission in Geneva.

I wish to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for all the support I receive from governments, as well as a wide array of individuals, communities and organisations to carry out this mandate in such invigorating times. A special word of appreciation goes to the two main co-sponsors of this mandate, and to a cross-regional group of States, known as the Blue Group.


The focus of my thematic report on stigma reflects an issue that has been a priority, namely: the situation of the most marginalized and disadvantaged in society. I have repeatedly encountered incidences of lack of access to water and sanitation, where people in particular groups were systematically neglected compared to the rest of society. Some of these people I met with on country missions told me they don’t count, they are seen as dirty, as a burden to society, are unwanted, labelled as criminals, different or impure. Many of them have lost hope. On the other hand I have been faced with reluctance by decision makers to take action to overcome these situations. These circumstances, combined with the sense of normalcy with which stigma is viewed by broader society compelled me to write this report, so as to examine these cases systematically and to seek to understand what lies at the root of the dead-end these people find themselves in – in many instances, it is stigma.

And what is stigma? Stigma can be broadly understood as a process of dehumanizing, degrading, discrediting and devaluing people in certain population groups, often based on a feeling of disgust. Stigma attaches itself to an attribute, quality or identity that is regarded as inferior or abnormal. Stigma reflects societal power. Obviously what is considered abnormal changes over time and place, but the targets of stigma are always those who do not fit the social norm. At the same time, such evolutions in perceptions are the evidence that combatting stigma is something possible and within our reach.

Discrimination alone does not fully explain the reasons why entire groups of population are left with no sanitation and water. In certain extreme cases, people are not “just” experiencing exclusion and marginalization. Their situation is perceived as legitimate and justified by society and sometimes even by the authorities. I met with stigmatized people who had internalized the attitude towards them. I met with authorities who considered that perpetuating this “us vs. them divide” was justified. I realised that stigma, as a deeply entrenched social and cultural phenomenon, often lies at the root of lack of access to water and sanitation and results in serious human rights violations.

Stigma and discrimination are closely interrelated; they reinforce and legitimize each other - the former often lying at the root of discrimination and being an antecedent to, and a rationale for, discrimination. Indeed, stigma is so engrained in society, that marked cases of discrimination and other human rights violations are perceived as “acceptable”. Stigma often reinforces discriminatory policies and practices, and is covered with impunity. Therefore, addressing discrimination without explicitly also recognising and addressing stigma leaves part of the underlying issues unsolved.

As the report underlines stigma in relation to the exercise to the human rights to water and sanitation is present everywhere in the world and manifests itself in many different ways, combining ostracism, isolation, discrediting, harassment and others. I will refer here to three of these manifestations as illustrations, but first let me underline that every State has stigmatized groups, including wealthy States where homeless or ethnic minorities, among others are facing stigma.

  • Stigma can serve to silence individuals and communities, rendering their needs invisible and creating taboos around issues. For instance, stigma surrounding menstruation makes finding solutions for menstrual hygiene management a low priority and allows practices such as the seclusion of women and girls during menstruation to continue.
  • Stigma results in pushing people to the margins of society; For instance, access to water and sanitation for many Roma communities is notoriously precarious or inexistent. Similarly, people living in slums are often absent from official records; since there is a perception that they “should not be there” and do not deserve services. Also, sanitation workers often experience extreme forms of exclusion, their activities being seen with disgust and often needing to conceal the nature of their work.
  • The perpetuation of stigma by public authorities is manifest in the criminalization of certain behaviours .The stigmatization of homeless persons is a stark example of criminalization, for instance, through the adoption of local ordinances criminalizing proxy behaviours, like urination and defecation in public spaces.

States must refrain from any activities that perpetuate and institutionalize stigma, and must protect individuals from human rights abuses committed by third parties, including, for example, service providers, the media, community members and family members. States’ obligations reach into the private sphere. They cannot dismiss stigma as a social phenomenon over which they have no influence.

To that extent, States must act with due diligence and take positive and comprehensive steps. They must go beyond enacting formal legal provisions and take positive action to meet their obligations effectively and make a legitimate and reasonable effort to prevent and combat stigma. Information, participation and empowerment must be the starting point of any measures to combat stigma.

In my report I call on states to undertake a comprehensive study on stigma, based on a multi-stakeholder participatory process, to identify its drivers in relation to the human rights to water and sanitation. Such a study can be the basis for new legislation or amendments of existing legislation and policies; guide the elaboration and implementation of national plans and strategies; enable decisions on budget allocation; raise awareness through a wide dissemination campaign; and serve to provide guidance in the priorisation of measures to be taken to ensure the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation for all, in particular for those who have for long been neglected or marginalized.

To conclude, States cannot meet their human rights obligations without addressing stigma. The full realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation, and other human rights intimately linked to these rights, cannot be achieved without tackling the stigma which lies at the root of many human rights violations.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to now briefly outline the main features of my mission reports. I thank the Governments for the excellent cooperation and constructive dialogue throughout the visits as well as in follow up and preparation of the reports. I look forward to being of assistance in the implementation of recommendations.
There are some common points that I would like to underline in relation to Namibia, Senegal and Uruguay. Despite large differences between these countries, I witnessed willingness and positive and concrete steps to protect and implement the human rights to water and sanitation. Despite difficulties and challenges, governments in each of these three countries recognise the human rights to water and sanitation and have a vision, a plan and strategies in place for the water and/ or sanitation sectors. At the same time, and perhaps on a less positive note, those who were most affected by the lack of water and sanitation are those individuals and communities who are most marginalized, most vulnerable or most stigmatized.

Mission to Namibia

From 4-11 July 2011, I became the first special procedure mandate holder to be invited to Namibia - a country of scarce water resources. Over the past 20 years, Namibia has achieved significant progress in extending its water network across the country, especially in urban areas. More recently, Namibia has put in place a comprehensive policy framework for ensuring access to water and sanitation, with special emphasis on accelerating progress in the area of sanitation.

Many challenges remain. The health impact of lack of access to water and sanitation is still an area of concern. Over half of all child deaths in the country are attributed to lack of access to sanitation and safe water. The situation is compounded by the fact that 24 per cent of health facilities in Namibia do not have regular water supply, placing people who use these facilities at further risks of acquiring additional diseases. Physical accessibility and affordability of water and sanitation services pose particular challenges. In rural areas water points are still far away from many households and I met people who were drinking from a dirty traditional well, which is shared with their livestock, to avoid walking the long distance to the safe water point.

Another area of concern was affordability of water. Because water is expensive, low income people are forced to make unacceptable trade-offs – choosing between water or medicine or food for their child for instance. I met with a group of low income women from Katutura in Windhoek. Feeling desperate with their situation they told me the water bills “were killing [them]”.

However, in my view, the biggest challenge Namibia faces is the low sanitation coverage. About two-thirds of the population lack access to improved sanitation and more than half practise open defecation The National Sanitation Strategy of 2009 is an exemplary planning document laying the foundations for further progress and should be the basis for delivering sanitation for all. This will require political will, adequate funding, significant capacity development, and intense coordination. It will also require the breaking of taboos and strong awareness rising on the benefits of alternative and dry forms of sanitation – as the Otchi toilets.

From a broader human rights perspective, the unequal access to water and sanitation reflects larger patterns of entrenched inequality in Namibia. Despite impressive human development gains, the country must redress inequalities. I am convinced that the Government will build upon what has been achieved to make water and sanitation a more tangible reality for the many Namibians who currently lack it.

Mission au Sénégal


J’ai effectué une mission au Sénégal en novembre 2011. Des progrès très significatifs se sont vérifiés au Sénégal avec un taux d’accès à l’eau de 87,2% en 2010. En revanche, la plupart des Sénégalais n’ont toujours pas accès à l’assainissement. En 2010, la défécation à l’air libre était pratiquée par au moins 17% de la population, et près de la moitié de la population n’avait pas accès à des solutions d’assainissement améliorées. Il est clair que le secteur de l’assainissement mérite plus d’appuis financiers et politiques pour devenir une réalité pour tous.

En plus, la qualité de l’eau n’est pas pleinement garantie dans certaines régions du pays. Le Gouvernement a reconnu cette réalité et a estimé que 21% des personnes avec accès à des forages motorisées dans les zones rurales utilisent de l’eau médiocre pour la consommation. Une partie importante de la population ne peut pas accéder physiquement ou financièrement au réseau principal d’eau potable. Donc elle s’approvisionne souvent auprès de points d’eau polluée ou non traitée.

L’eau et l’assainissement restent hors de prix pour certains - parmi lesquelles les plus pauvres et marginalisées, c’est-à-dire ceux dans les communautés périurbaines et rurales. Des efforts concertés sont indispensables pour faire en sorte que l’eau et l’assainissement soient abordables, pour toute la population, et avec priorité pour les plus pauvres. Il est indispensable de réexaminer l’actuel système de tarif social, notamment les effets pervers qu’il parfois origine et qui sont détaillés dans mon rapport.

Comme le pays envisage de concéder durablement les services d’approvisionnement en eau à des partenaires privées, des ajustements seront nécessaires pour obtenir de meilleurs résultats dans tout le pays et pour éviter l’exclusion des plus vulnérables. En plus, le pays doit charger un organe de suivi indépendant de veiller à ce que les fournisseurs, aussi bien publics que privées, assurent l’accès de tous à une eau et un assainissement de qualité et abordables sans discrimination.

Misión a Uruguay


Para concluir, quisiera referirme a la misión oficial que realicé a Uruguay, en Febrero del año en curso.

Uruguay tiene uno de los índices más altos de acceso al agua potable en América Latina y el Caribe, con 98% de la población cubierta. Es también pionero en el mundo en el reconocimiento constitucional del derecho al agua potable y al saneamiento como derechos humanos fundamentales.

En Uruguay los promedios nacionales muestran avances innegables, aunque algunos desafíos están todavía presentes. Durante mi visita pude observar que los temas de accesibilidad y asequibilidad del agua y saneamiento para uso personal y doméstico merecen mas atención con respecto a sectores más específicos de población, por ejemplo en cuanto a las personas sin techo, así como a aquellas que viven en centros de detención, asentamientos irregulares y/o en zonas rurales.

Si bien se ha alcanzado un acceso considerable al saneamiento, la red de alcantarillado se considera desde hace mucho tiempo como la solución ideal y la única alternativa. La extensión de la red de alcantarillado implica una inversión presupuestaria considerable, por lo que he recomendado que se promueva una discusión nacional amplia e inclusiva para identificar otras opciones de saneamiento. Estas podrían incluir alternativas cuyo costo, sostenibilidad y adecuación a las características de zonas de menor densidad poblacional del país puedan hacerlas efectivas.

Finalmente, me gustaría llamar la atención sobre el impacto negativo que algunas agroindustrias ganaderas y proyectos en gran escala tienen sobre los recursos y la calidad del agua. Los productos agroquímicos y los desechos fecales, en su mayoría de ganado, se descargan en fuentes de agua, aumentando el riesgo de diversas enfermedades. Por otra parte, en el informe he señalado también que algunos proyectos de inversión a gran escala pueden incidir en la disponibilidad de agua para las generaciones presentes y futuras. El gobierno de Uruguay debe considerar la aprobación de un plan nacional de recursos hídricos que incluye la evaluación y verificación de la disponibilidad de agua en el país.


In July I also visited Kiribati and Tuvalu and will present the relevant reports to the Council next year.

I am looking forward to the interactive dialogue that follows this presentation and am very much looking forward to the future and to pursuing the challenging but also very gratifying activities under my mandate.