Not quite right

Water and sanitation have been recognised as a basic human right at the UN General Assembly last month, with 122 countries voting for it and 41 abstaining. The right is not legally binding, but more like an ideal towards which countries have to work.

One would believe that such a right is already implied wherever there is a right to life. However, those who pushed for this right rationalise that making it an explicit right would help to hold governments ultimately responsible for providing water and sanitation to their people. Now, if only things were that straightforward.

Even though the federal governments of countries have signed up for the right, the actual delivery of water services is usually carried out by the provincial and local governments. Do these governments have the finances to fulfil the right?

Another question thrown up is the impact of this right on the participation of the private sector. However, the recent UN report of the independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations has sensibly answered the question.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the independent expert, has asked for a more “nuanced approach” which overcomes the “simplistic public versus private debate” and acknowledges the existence of “a wide variety of actors and arrangements for the delivery of water and sanitation services”. According to her, “The human rights framework does not call for any particular form of service provision.”

However, Ms de Albuquerque emphasises that the State “cannot exempt itself from its human rights obligations by involving non-State actors in service provision”. At the end of the day, the State will bear the ultimate responsibility to ensure the realisation of human rights. No one would argue with that.

What is perhaps most ambiguous is the ensuring of “affordable services”. ‘Affordable’ would have different connotations for different people. It is the improper pricing of water which has led to the whole problem of this life-giving liquid being under-valued, wasted and polluted.

Considering the capital-intensive nature of piped water services, it is imperative for utilities to recover their costs. Until the issue of water tariffs is resolved in a pragmatic manner, utilities will continue to be debt-ridden, ill-equipped and inefficient. How can a utility which barely recovers its operation costs be expected to extend supplies to the poor?

One struggles to find examples where the right to water has actually helped citizens. To irresponsible governments for whom the right to equality or the right against exploitation are mere words, one more right only means some more documentation.

Meanwhile, the well-performing utilities of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Phnom Penh and others did not ever need a nudge from human rights declarations.

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