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The Human Right to Water & Sanitation applied by the IDB and the Aquafund


Suma Qamara is the expression of life of the Aymara people in the Altiplano.  The translation literally means to live in peace with oneself, in peace with other people, and in peace with the environment. The protection of the environment was at the cornerstone of the indigenous people of Latin America. Water, a precious public good, was captured and distributed through sophisticated systems long before modern times. It was available for everyone in the community. There was no written constitution at that point in time, but access to water was for the whole community, it was a customary right.

500 years later, water has become a scarce good and not available for everyone. Even though the Latin American region is rich in water sources and resources, service is unequal, quality is degrading, access is not always affordable, administration of the resource is negligent, and supply is threatened by climate vulnerabilities specifically melting glaciers and droughts.

How important is water for public health? It is vital; the lack of sanitation leads to sickness, low self-esteem, and marginalization. These are some of the reasons why The United Nations (UN) proclaimed the access to water and sanitation as a new Human Right in 2010. The UN Comission on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights defines the right more specifically: „The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses“. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) included increasing the access to safe drinking water and sanitation to half of the population who lacked this right. Now, let’s look at the other “half” that is still left out, those who were not among the ones that got access through the achievements of the MDG. There is a common denominator: these are informal settlements in per-urban areas or rural disperse communities with very limited economic means. They are the real poor and vulnerable. And then, it would be necessary to ask: how do we reach them?

In August 2015, we learned from Leo Heller, special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and from Dan Bena of the Pepsico Foundation at the World Water Week that “the water sector and the Human Rights sector talk different languages; putting them together has not been an easy task”. In fact, there is still confusion about what this right entails, and who is responsible for assuring its implementation. Mr. Heller for his part emphasized that this right is governed by several general principles: i) Equality and Non Discrimination (all populations have the right to get Water Sanitation services); ii) Accountability (deliver information to users and non-users); iii) Sustainability and non retrogration (the right must be maintained during emergency situations, draught, or displacement of population); (iv) citizen participation (a means for people to claim their rights for safe water & effective sanitation).

Although this kind of gatherings is necessary, advocacy alone is not enough to reach the implementation the human right to water and sanitation. Providing water is not an act of “charity”, rather a legal obligation. Therefore, the IDB and its partners in the AquaFund (MoF from Austria, Economic State Secretariat of Switzerland, Swiss Development Corporation, Pepsico Foundation and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation) use the fund as an instrument to lay the ground to enable the policy process in a country, prepare for the necessary investments, strengthen countries’ institutions and empower the community. In fact, at the AquaFund we want to break the “middle ground”.

We do not suggest a top down political process, nor a revolution from the bottom! To provide the water as a human right, all stakeholders should participate. While the voice of the needed should be heard, appropriate authorities should create the conditions so that the service can be affordable for informal settlements in per-urban areas or rural disperse communities.  The approach should be the provision to both urban and rural areas in an equitable way. As good as this sounds, the implementation does not come without challenges: it also entails finding solutions for those who cannot afford to connect to the network, those who do not understand the importance of hygiene, or those who do not find the right condition in using water without embarrassment like special needs for women.

The road map of the AquaFund is complex but articulated:

A grant project was recently approved which aims to providing a practical guide and applicable cases on implementing the human right to water and sanitation and basic applicable cases.

More visible, the AquaFund is engaged in a practical efforts to enhance the provision of water and sanitation services to informal settlements in peri-urban areas or rural disperse communities. In four countries of the region specialists are working with local and national government entities, local and international water NGO’s to implement water and sanitation services as pilot projects. The goal is to provide solutions in regard to the policy process, accountability, sustainability of the service, and community involvement and participation to facilitate the implementation on a large scale of the service to the poor. The method is simple: implement pilot projects financed by the AquaFund, draw lessons for replication, prepare practical handbooks with applicable business models, and provide loans to service providers for investments that use the inputs from the pilot interventions.

Part of the effort to implement human rights to water and sanitation is the pilot project for the recovery and modernization of the ancient water system of the Aymara people in the central Andes. Another project of the AquaFund worth mentioning is taking place in Peru: enhancement of the use of water and sanitation in the households of the poor. The project selected four pilot areas of the country: rural, peri-urban, coastal area and the highlands where the technical assistance promotes the use of water and sanitation for different purposes: showers, kitchen sink, toilets, and facilitates these types of improvement through a line of micro-credits and hygiene education.

So what’s different in implementing the human right to water and sanitation? We have to put our boots on the ground! We have to make the voices of the needed heard, connect them with the decision makers, and help develop practical models to provide an affordable and sustainable service.

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