The Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Geneva, 14.09.17

The Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation

                               Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson,  Vatican City                          

      (Geneva, Palais des Nations 14th September 2017)



Your Excellency, the Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See; Your Excellencies: Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Distinguished Organizers and Members of the Assembly, it is a pleasure to be back in the Palais des Nations and to greet you all again on behalf of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development of the Holy See. I am thus honored to have, again, the occasion to share a brief reflection on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.


1-      Introduction

Every day we are bombarded with bad news about the atrocities that we humans can do, harming each other and nature. Today, however, we are here to share a piece of good news. This is about the global will to formalise and strengthen the access to water and sanitation as a human right.


These questions are not marginal, but basic and pressingBasic, because where there is water there is life, making it possible for societies to spring up and advance. Pressing, because our common home needs to be protected. Yet it must also be realized that not all water is life-giving, but only water that is safe and of good quality.[1]  Water is a natural resource vital for the survival of humanity and all species on earth. As a good of creation, water is destined for all human beings and their communities. God intended the earth and all it contains for the use of all, so that all created things would be shared fairly by humankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity[2].


2- Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation


It has to be agreed that, since air and water are essential to life, they should be considered common goods of nature – goods that belong to all humanity and all living beings. There is no doubt that air is everyone’s and for everyone. Therefore it has occurred to no one to use air distribution as an instrument of power, given its presence everywhere. Water is at the center of economic and social development: it is vital in order to maintain health, grow food, generate energy and create jobs while sustaining the natural environment. However, a fair and equitable global water management is far from achievement. The Catholic Church throughout the last decades has repeatedly highlighted to  the international community the importance of access to water as a basic human right and a common good.  This has been reaffirmed in many documents from the Catholic Church starting from the Social Doctrine, through different encyclical letters to the latest statements of the His Holiness Pope Francis or representatives of the Catholic Church.[3]


In parallel to the Church’s position on the right of access to water, the international community has given increased importance to this pressing issue. During the last decades and with particular reference to the debates related to the fight against poverty, conservation and exploitation of ecosystems, or renewable and non-renewable resources the crucial role of water in development processes, as well as in the strategies of international cooperation, has absolutely been expanded and recognized as a key issue of international law. This awareness was enhanced for the first time by the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I) that was held in Vancouver (Canada) in 1976, followed by initiatives such as the UN decision to call the “Water for Life” Decade (2005-2015), with the creation in various Governments and International Organizations of programs dedicated to its complex issues and problems. These initiatives paved the way for the launch of policies, strategies and actions by States and International Organizations aimed at dealing with the complex problems of water, such as: safety and quantity; affordable quantitative, responsible and sustainable use; as well as loss and waste of this resource.

To date, the most advanced position in international soft-law with regard to the inter-relationship between water and human rights is represented by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) non-binding resolution of 2015 which foresees that “[…] the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation as components of the right to an adequate standard of living are essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life and all human rights”[4]. Making such access a human right is the result of a long process of international and intergovernmental negotiations, with the concurrence of relevant rules, different in nature – conventional, compulsory, binding or between soft and hard law – and which had a systematic formulation in 2002 by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). Called upon to explain the significance of a self-standing right to water and its juridical coherence to the corpus of international human rights law, the CESCR reaffirmed that, living on Earth, human condition on the planet and search for improving social and economic standards have an intrinsic link with water usage and management[5]. The UNGA proclaimed in 2010 the Declaration on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation as an instrument that recognizes this right through different positions, and considers water “essential for the full enjoinment of life and all human rights”[6]. Jointly with the CESCR intervention, the UNGA declares the right to water and sanitation consistent with principles and rules of international law, considering it even a prerequisite for the enjoyment of other rights. Both of these above-mentioned pronouncements clearly indicate that water plays a crucial role in accomplishing the outcomes of projects, investments, and levels of quality, both in development processes and in intergovernmental policies on cooperation. It is linked to sustainable development and its achievement as well. Nowadays, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, interrelated with SDG 2, envisages outlines in the Agenda for development 2030[7] and explains these considerations through a functional approach: the access to water, and particularly its rational use, conservation, preservation from pollution and management are considered significant challenges for the current domestic and international policies.


Indeed, for the Church, every instance of a global consensus, facilitated by the UN or not, to accept that some rights are fundamental, perennial and universal, is a proof that we (humanity) know how to recognise our deep identity and common human dignity, inscribed by God in his creatures (cf. CSDC, 304).

Thus, the fact that we have formally committed to realizing the SDGs and accepted some rights as basic ones, such as the rights of workers to have a decent wage, or the right of citizens to be free from any unjustified oppression, or the right of people to have freedom of movement or the possibility of economic development, is a very happy development. However, we know that without solid foundations, our resolutions and declarations of rights are not necessarily respected. In every continent we still have serious challenges to resolutions and declared rights, such as: problems on workers being exploited, citizens being oppressed, migrants being criminalised, and people struggling to develop in an integral way. This shows that the implementation of resolutions and human rights is not easy, and that they are subject to multiple interpretations that often weaken, rather than strengthen human dignity and the common good.

Accordingly, I would like, now, to suggest how fundamental and indispensable it is to ground the debate on the right to water and sanitation in its anthropological foundations.


3. -Foundations of the right to water and sanitation


a)      Basic human need

Some people and countries would argue that the right to water and sanitation has to be considered a human right because it is a basic human need, necessary to fulfil any other human activity.

For the Church, this is partly true. In his social encyclical Laudato Si’, On the Care for Our Common Home (n. 30), Pope Francis reaffirms that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights”. In fact, we as humans receive life and refreshment from the earth’s waters (cf. LS, 2). Without water there’s no human life, hence no point in discussing any human right.

However strong the argument about water as a basic human need is, it is by no means the only one. I would say it is just the first step to convince ourselves about why the right to water and sanitation is essential. But if we want this right to be respected and properly implemented by all nations, we need to walk further and enter into the complexities of this right.

b)      Freedom and entitlement

In order to broad the foundations of the right to water and sanitation, other people and countries in the UN argue that this right is more linked with human freedom and entitlement, not just with basic needs. In this sense, every person deserves to be free from arbitrary disconnection and contamination of water sources.

This, for the Church, is also true. When people are not free to drink the most basic natural element that allow them to survive, i.e. water, this is because there is a patent social injustice. Therefore, the lack of access to water not only affects the dignity of those who cannot drink it or use it, but also affects the common good. Moreover, the fact that some people are free from that disconnection and contamination of water sources and others are not, reflects how unequal a society has been organised. As Pope Francis points out in Laudato Si’ (cf. 48; 24), water pollution particularly affects the poor who, for example, cannot buy bottled water. These people are more prone to diseases such as dysentery and cholera, which, among other things, is cause infant mortality.

We can see how inequality in access to water generates other social inequalities, which prevent a society to develop in a justly and in an integral or sustainable way. And inequalities that foments further injustices normally result in the violation of human rights and other conflicts. Humanity as a common family cannot afford this.

To present the right of access to water and sanitation not just as a basic human need but also as a crucial element of freedom, is a necessary second valid step to cement the basis of this right. However, we would still need to walk further and explore the causes of the problems around water. It is not enough to describe the symptoms; we need also to delve deep into the causes of the problem, which leads us to the matter of current access and water supply.

c)      Access and supply

Delegations of some countries, many inspired by social movements, have argued that the problem of the right to water goes beyond basic needs and freedom. It is fundamentally about how people access water and how it is supplied.

This is connected with the role of the state in supplying water to the population and with the issue around participation, i.e. how people participate in the water supply and distribution. It is also connected with the debate about how do we address water altogether. Is it a basic element for life, a common natural element which should be available for all, a public good? Or can it be considered merely a commodity and hence be privatised?

Without this discussion, any declaration about the human right to water and sanitation risk becoming weak. We could end up trying to protect ordinary people from abuse of power by declaring that access to water is a human right, by paradoxically further empowering those who have already power to access clean water and profit from its distribution. International human rights, if they are to be solid and compelling, have yet to prove that they are strong tools in confronting issues of economic injustice, such as unequal access to water.

St John Paul II, who emphasised the central place of human rights for the promotion of social justice and peace, highlighted the strong link between the right of people to seek for political organisation with the universal destination of the goods (cf Laborem Exercens, 19; Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 33; Centesiumus Annus, 31). In other words, the basic elements that God has created and that mother Earth provides, elements without which humans cannot live, are part of our common home, hence common goods that every inhabitant should have access to. Thus, any society that denies the access to water to some, is in fact betraying its most precious human foundations.

For this reason, and following St John Paul II, Pope Francis reinforced that “the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order” (LS, 93). It is the basis for a type of development that aims at being sustainable and at promoting human rights (cf. ibid.).

I know that this is complex, especially if we consider that problems of current urban areas. In fact, somebody has to be in charge of distributing clean water to urban citizens, which would rarely be able to do it by themselves. And this is linked with the economic system and the political organisation, as well as with how do we ‘consume’  and ‘waste’ water in cities.

But even in rural areas, where water is more directly and patently related to life, ordinary people, especially the most disadvantaged, struggle to have access to it. Because of this, for example, many agricultural communities in Africa cannot grow their crops, their animals die, and they have to migrate, generating great suffering and more conflicts. This leads me to the last step or topic I would like to mention as a contribution to build up a solid basis for the human right to water and sanitation: the connection between water as a human right and water as a right of the earth.

d)      Humans and ecosystems

Water is needed for all source of life, not just for human life. Without water, or with polluted water, not only humans cannot live. The entire ecosystem struggles. Hence, the right to water necessarily integrates human and nature, society and ecosystems, the rights of humans and the rights of our mother earth. This is what Pope Francis calls ‘integral ecology’. Human environment and the natural environment are integrated, not separated, and they develop or deteriorate together. Therefore, if we want to adequately combat the human and social problem around access to water, we also need to address its ecological aspect (cf Laudato Si’, 48). Addressing them together allows us to identify more clearly the roots of the problem.

When an industrial activity contaminates sources of water, something that sadly happens often in Africa and Latin America, for example, it affects individuals, communities and their environments. It is not just about human water-related diseases, but also about plants and animal water-diseases. It is also about the loss of the fertility of the soil, and the loss of biodiversity, losses that will cause even more harm and conflicts. For this reason, if we are to debate the right of water, I invite you to consider what is the human attitude with which we contaminate water. I invite you to discuss how a short-term mentality that prioritise profit rather than life, or the attitude of exploitation over cooperation, or the attitude of indifference over responsibility and solidarity, lead us to violate the right to water. Because if we are to declare and implement the right to water and sanitation, we need to move away from these negative attitudes which cause huge ecological problems and conflicts, and also make it impossible or difficult for some people to have access to the most basic element of our mother Earth.



An integral approach to human rights can help us to cement a solid basis upon which we can not only declare, but above all implement the right to water and sanitation for all. For that, we need to go further than the basic needs or freedom approach. We need to debate about the nature of water as a socio-ecological good. We also need to debate about how do we want to organise and use these goods, and about how we can change the roots that causes the violation of the right to water.




[1] WHO The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP) Report 2017 available at: .

[2] Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, 69.

[3] Cf. Holy See presence and contributions at World Water Fora (2003 at Kyoto, 2006 at Mexico City, Istanbul in 2009, Marseille in 2012…. Cf. Acqua un Elemento Essenziale per la Vita, PCJP, Libreria Vaticano, Città del Vaticano,  2013).

[4] United Nations – General Assembly, The human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Resolution A/RES/70/169, 17 December 2015, available at

[5] United Nation-Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Ri, General Comment No. 15 (2002) The right to water, Doc. E/C.12/2002/11, 2003 available at

[6] Resolution 64/292, in United Nations – General Assembly, The Human Right to Water and Sanitation, para. 1, available at

[7] United Nations – General Assembly, Resolution 70/1, 25 September 2015, available at

21 June 2018