The UN Declares Access to Water and Sanitation a Human Right

Maggie Brown, MS, ELS is Senior Production Editor at PLoS

On July 28, the UN General Assembly took an important step on a massive but often unappreciated global problem by declaring access to clean water and sanitation a human right. The resolution  expresses the Assembly’s “deep concern” that almost 900 million people do not have safe drinking water, more than 2.6 billion people do not have basic sanitation, and about 1.5 million children under five die each year because of these deficiencies.

The resolution calls on political entities and organizations to “provide financial resources, build capacity and transfer technology, particularly to developing countries, in scaling up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.”

Although the resolution is nonbinding, many are lauding it as a promising signal to the world that this critical issue is now high on the global agenda, and that new impetus has been given to reaching the water- and sanitation-related MDG (7c: to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation). Note: this will be included the focus of the Summit on progress toward the MDGs to be held in September in New York.

No member nation voted against it (122 voted in favor and 41 abstained), but the resolution did result in some controversy among member states. Among the abstaining nations was the United States, which expressed concern that the non-unanimous support for the resolution could undermine another international process on water and sanitation already in progress in the UN Human Rights Council (http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?m=167). Other delegates felt that rather than being an obstacle to the Geneva process it is one positive step toward reaching a legally binding international human rights instrument.

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