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Prepared for World Water Day. Written by Margret Vidar and Mohamed Ali Mekouar, Legal Office, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Reviewed by the staff and experts from the Globalization, Cross-Sectoral Policies and Human Rights team (GCP), and the Water, Sanitation, and Health unit (WSH), World Health Organization (WHO).
© 2001–2003, 2002 WHO

Water, health and human rights


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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings. Human rights standards and international humanitarian law are essentially an elaboration of this statement. There are certain basic needs that are essential for a dignified life, indeed for life itself. Water is one of these essential human needs and a clean environment is also increasingly recognised as a fundamental human right.

Water scarcity, water and ground contamination and lack of access to water by the poor are among the main obstacles to full enjoyment of the right to water.1 The Special Rapporteur for the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities2 identified obstacles to the realisation of the right of access to drinking water supply and sanitation services. The obstacles include:

  • bad management of freshwater;
  • the lack of planning;
  • the unequal distribution of drinking water and sanitation services;
  • the privatisation of state enterprises linked to water services;
  • the regular increase in the cost of drinking water supplies.

1The declining state of the world's freshwater resources may prove to be the dominant issue on the environment and development agenda of the coming century. Currently about 18% of the world's population lacks access to improved water services and about 40% lacks adequate sanitation (Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report).
2The right of access of everyone to drinking water supply and sanitation services, Working Paper by El Hadji Guissé, Special Rapporteur, Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Fiftieth Session, Economic and Social Council, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1998/7, 10 June 1998., paragraph 29.

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