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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Water and sanitation justice for all? One right, two fora

By Étienne Von Bertrab, on 22 March 2012

Post written by Adriana Allen and Etienne Von Bertrab

Between 12 and 17 March the French port city of Marseille hosted the triennial World Water Forum (WWF) in its sixth edition. The event, entitled Time for Solutions, was not the only international forum discussing the multidimensional water crisis. Parallel to this well-funded, widely attended, influential and increasingly contested forum organised by the World Water Council (WWC) that captures significant media attention, the less glamorous but increasingly strong and articulated Alternative World Water Forum (FAME) made itself present. To think that the latter is a space for those simply put off by the fees of the WWF would be a complete misapprehension. While the fact that the fora took place in venues at opposing extremes of the city is mere coincidence, the events are indeed unalike, to say the least. Differences lie not only in the way each forum is conceived and structured but also in the predominant ways in which the distinct water crises are explained, and thus what in each political space is recognised to be in the realm of desirable and acceptable solutions.











Debates in Marseille started under a new framing of the problem. In July 2010 the United Nations Human Rights Council affirmed for the first time that the human right to water and sanitation is legally binding. While the fact that such a basic human right was only recognised this century might come as a surprise to many, progress towards this aim had been vocally obstructed by some (influential) states. The contention provoked a rupture in WWF’s previous edition in Istanbul in 2009, when 24 governments ended signing a counter-declaration recognising this right in opposition to the forum’s official declaration. Nevertheless civil society groups were successful in their campaigns to protect the rights of billions of vulnerable people who don’t have access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation all over the world. As a result, 178 countries have now recognised the right to water and sanitation at least once in an international resolution or declaration. Concerns remain, however, over the ambivalence with which the right to sanitation is treated by some countries, and more generally over a perceived fragility of the international endorsement. However, even if not yet perfect, the aforementioned process represents a pivotal point in history, as it triggered the need to move towards concrete responses to make the universalisation of both rights a reality worldwide. In discussing the roadmap towards this universalisation, discussions in Marseille focused on a number of challenges that still need to be actively overcome. These challenges can be better  examined by unpacking a series of persistent deficits.

The first challenge concerns the need to address what could be termed as the ‘commitment deficit’. While many countries have made progress in ensuring that both rights are guaranteed in an institutional framework, the work required to make the transition to universal access should not be underestimated. Financially, such a transition is viable and affordable. For instance, in Latin America, universal provision would require sustained investments equivalent to 0.3 percent of the regional GDP over the next 10-20 years. With a GDP of USD 4.3 trillion in 2010, further forecasted economic growth and a rich base of natural resources, the region is well positioned to make water and sanitation poverty a thing of history. At the same time, however, Latin America is the most unequal region of the world. In this context, water and sanitation poverty has and continues to be produced and reproduced in an alarming trend of growth without equitable distribution. Therefore, only less ambivalent commitments from each state can tackle this deeply ingrained trend in the region. Left to market forces alone, the last two decades have revealed that universalised access to water and sanitation will not be achieved in Latin America, nor elsewhere.

Excerpt (in Spanish) from Adriana Allen’s response to sessions of the Americas Regional Process in WWF

Compounded with this we also face deficits in the way we frame our understanding of the following problems: What is water and sanitation poverty? Where does it take place? Who is affected? Why is this one of the most persistent problems facing us in the new millennium? Given the difficulty of establishing a benchmark based on adequate access to water, the UN MDGs place emphasis on the availability of improved water supply at a reasonable distance. The Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment Report 2000 suggests that ‘reasonable access’ should be broadly defined as ‘the availability of at least 20 litres per person per day from a source within one kilometre of the user’s dwelling’. For most urban dwellers, however, distance alone does not provide an appropriate standard; population density is a more critical factor. Moreover, much has been written about the fact that what is measured as ‘improved facilities’ might not necessarily constitute ‘adequate access’. This ‘conceptualisation deficit’ has significant implications as it leads to an underestimation of the real number of people living in water and sanitation poverty, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas. More generally, if the definition of adequate provision for water were to be set as a house connection or a yard tap, then more than half of the population in small and medium size cities in the Global South have inadequate provision. People might be ‘water poor’ in the sense of not having sufficient water for their basic needs because it is not available, or because they may have to walk a long way to get it, or even if they have access to water nearby, supplies of clean water may be limited for various reasons. Of course, people may also be ‘water poor’ because they are ‘income poor’, but it can often be because of their gender, age, ethnicity and geographical location. This highlights the urgent need to better capture the multidimensionality of water and sanitation poverty. Deficient conceptualisations travel all the way to determine how we measure ‘needs’, budget the ‘resources’ required to address them, establish ‘benchmarks’ and monitor ‘progress’. A key task ahead in this sense lies on bridging the gap between resource-based versus rights-based versus utility-based assessments.

Resource-based assessments play an important role in revealing biophysical conditions that might undermine the availability of water not just to satisfy productive and reproductive needs but also to protect vital ecosystem services. Furthermore, they can provide useful guidance to better apprehend the importance of considering the whole water cycle, how to deal with wastewater and the potential to close the nutrient loop, shifting from hydraulic to hydric solutions. We need to move outside the ‘water box’ by reappraising the scenarios posed by increasingly competing regional and virtual demands and actively exploring the water-energy, water climate change and water-food nexus.

Right-based assessments remind us of the integral part that water and sanitation play in fighting the reproduction of environmental injustices all over the world and the ultimate price paid by the most vulnerable. Such assessments are concerned not just with unsatisfied practical needs (e.g. access to sufficient, clean, regular and affordable water) but more fundamentally with the need to actively confront discrimination and the alienation of the strategic rights and entitlements of a sizeable portion of the world population. Utility-assessments are useful to guide the investments and infrastructural responses required to tackle water and sanitation poverty. However, these are often biased towards large hydraulic and centralised infrastructural projects with a poor record in both responding to the challenges highlighted by both resource and rights-based assessments.

The third compounded challenge concerns the so-called ‘governance deficit’. Since the 1990s, the debate on water and sanitation has been dominated by the public-private dichotomy. While such dichotomy is increasingly rendered as irrelevant – in the sense that most utilities all over the world have undergone significant restructuring and that commodification of water is also being reproduced by public utilities – a more pervasive dichotomy still remains largely unchallenged. The latter concerns the distinction between ‘authorised’ and ‘unauthorised’ or ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ practices. When looking at the specific ways in which the poor gain access to water services, it is possible to identify a wide range of practices and arrangements. Some of these are ‘policy-driven’ mechanisms supported by institutional arrangements of the state. However there is a wide set of ‘other’ arrangements that operate on the basis of solidarity and reciprocity and on informal provision, as in the case of small independent water providers. These mechanisms can be characterised as being ‘needs-driven’ and correspond to the wide spectrum of practices adopted by the poor, often with little or no support from the state, its policies and resources. The crucial problem is that the bulk of the efforts to improve access to water and sanitation made on the policy-driven side often remain unsupportive of the actual needs-driven practices through which the poor get by. For instance, as it was highlighted by the Freshwater Action Network, in Latin America alone grassroots water committees reach 40 million people and encompass more than 80,000 communities working under a self-provision model. With few exceptions, these platforms operate without the support of state agencies and either private or public utilities. There are some emerging mechanisms that bridge citizen and state roles and responsibilities in water and sanitation provision, in the pursuit of what we could call the ‘co-production of water justice’. However, little attention is devoted to the understanding and enhancement of these platforms.

In summary, given the wider recognition of the human right to water and sanitation we might be living decisive times for making water and sanitation poverty history, but we cannot be complacent. If water and sanitation justice is to be achieved, dominant assumptions, approaches and biases need to be constantly challenged. Real, sustainable and just solutions to the water and sanitation crises shouldn’t rely only on the will of governments, donors and multilateral organisations. Making water and sanitation poverty history, or not, will be the resultant of the combination of a range of forces within the society at large, in every particular context. Concerning the international events that this year gathered in Marseille, it is precisely the existence of the two fora the best opportunity to make evident the tensions and contradictions in policy and practice, and by addressing these, to advance towards sustainable water and sanitation justice for all.


All photos by Etienne Von Bertrab