On World Toilet Day, UN Committee urges states to take sanitation seriously


A key UN human rights committee will adopt a statement* Friday –  coinciding with World Toilet Day – which details massive problems relating to sanitation across the globe, and urging States to ensure that “everyone, without discrimination, has physical and affordable access to sanitation that is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable, provides privacy and ensures dignity.”

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said sanitation is “a largely neglected topic,” despite the fact that 2.6 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation and “over a billion people still have no option but to practice open defecation.”

“People living in poverty are disproportionately impacted by lack of access to sanitation,” the Committee said. “In developing countries, as much as 80 percent of wastewater is untreated and goes directly into lakes, rivers and oceans.  As a direct consequence of this, diarrhea is the second biggest cause of death of children under the age of five.”

“Sanitation is fundamental for human survival and for leading a life in dignity,” the Committee said.

The Committee also noted that lack of sanitation has a significant negative impact on education, especially for girls: “Girls and boys do not attend school because they fall prey to diseases caused by inadequate sanitation. Moreover, girls do not go to school in many parts of the world for lack of toilets, or lack of separate toilets for them.”

The Committee’s statement received strong support from Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN’s Independent Expert on water and sanitation.**

“I welcome the statement by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which affirms sanitation as a human right,” Ms. de Albuquerque said. “For too long, sanitation has been neglected and the attention devoted to the issue by the Committee is a signal that times are changing.”  

The right to sanitation is an essential component of the right to an adequate standard of living, enshrined in article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – one of the two key international Covenants that translate the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into binding international law.

“The sanitation crisis is one of the direst challenges of our time,” Ms. de Albuquerque said. “By understanding sanitation as a human right, which is inherently linked to human dignity, we place sanitation within the legally binding human rights obligations undertaken by States. Sanitation is no longer a matter of charity. States must create an enabling environment to ensure access to sanitation. They should have a vision of how to extend affordable, sustainable access. They are accountable for progress – or lack of progress – and must deploy the maximum available resources to improve sanitation for all inhabitants.”  

At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, a target on sanitation was added to the Millennium Development Goals emphasizing that reducing the number of people without access to sanitation is as fundamentally important as the other MDG targets. “However,” the Committee noted, “sanitation is one of the most off-track targets of the Millennium Development Goals, and recent estimates have shown that between 2006 and 2008 an additional 100 million people were left without access to improved sanitation.”

In October, the Human Rights Council (Resolution A/HRC/RES/15/9), reaffirmed the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation recognized by the General Assembly on 28 July 2010.

“These groundbreaking resolutions, which are fully supported by the work of the Committee, end the discussion of whether sanitation and water are human rights,” Ms. de Albuquerque said. “The right to water and sanitation is now internationally recognized, and we must focus on implementing this human right, to make it real for the billions who still lack access.”