Discrimination: The True Barrier to Clean Water

“We have to use the water from the stream which is very dirty. Children vomit and get diarrhoea very often” (Amnesty 2011:40).

These words belong to Silvana Hudorovac, recorded by Amnesty International in their 2011 report ‘Parallel lives’. In 2011 Silvana was living in a community without access to clean running water and basic sanitation. In this report Silvana explains how her family are forced to defecate in trenches behind their homes (Amnesty, 2011).

Silvana’s experience is not uncommon.  According to Water Aid 783 Million people are living without access to clean running water. A further 2.5 billion people are without the use of a proper toilet or basic sanitation. Water Aid describes this situation as a ‘water crisis’ and for good reason. The impact on global health is devastating as an estimated ‘3.4 million people die each year from a water related disease’ (Water Org, 2013).

The human right to water was officially recognized by the Human Rights Council in 2010 with ‘The human right to water and sanitation’ resolution. Article (1) of the resolution ‘ recognises the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights’.

Since 2010 any state that has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ‘can no longer deny their responsibility to provide safe water and sanitation to all people’ (Right to water, 2013). Yet this entitlement is not being provided and individuals, such as Silvana’s human rights are being violated.

Improving water and basic sanitation has been a focus of international development initiatives over the last ten years. It is also a target of the seventh Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs were devised by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development. The MDGs focus on eight global targets aimed at alleviating global poverty. They range from the eradication of hunger to ensuring environmental sustainability (UN, 2013).

In September 2000 the largest ever meeting of world leaders took place at the ‘UN Millennium Summit’. At this summit leaders signed the Millennium Declaration and agreed to achieve the eight goals by 2015. The expiry date of the MDGs is looming in the not so distance future.  One target of the seventh goal ensuring environmental sustainability has been achieved and is triumphed as a development success story.  The target that has been met is to ‘half the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation’ (UN, 2013).

The UN  2012 MDGs report states that since ‘2010  89% of the world’s population was using improved drinking water sources up from 76% in 1990’. This sounds like a grand achievement particularly in conjunction with the statistic that ‘more than two billion people gained access to improved water sources’ (UN, 2013). However it is hard to assess whether the MDGs have impacted on the increased proportion of people who have improved water sources. This is because over half of global development in improved water sources is attributed to India and China (UN, 2013). And efforts to improved water sources started before 1990 with economic growth of these countries.

Data is also not available to measure how much water sources have improved and if they now provide safe drinking water. The statistics are less optimistic for the global improvement on sanitation. This has only measured to have increased from ‘36 per cent in 1990 to 56 per cent in 2010’ (UN, 2013). The lopsidedness of the gains made by access to improved water sources and not by sanitation are concerning as water does not stay clean for long without sanitation.

What is also apparent from the UN report is that global improvements in drinking water are by no means evenly spread. This is in-between regions and within countries.

Data compiled from 35 Sub-Saharan African states in the UN report shows that ‘over 90 per cent of the riches quintile in urban areas’ is using improved water sources. Whereas ‘piped- in water is non-existent in the poorest 40 percent of households, and less than half of the population uses any form of improved source of water’ (UN ,2012).

Even when the MDG target for improved access to drinking water has been met it remains that clean water is still out of reach for the poorest members of society. This also disproportionately affects the lives of women who in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa bear the brunt of water collection.

When interviewed, Silvana Hudorovac was living in Slovenia where according to Amnesty nearly 100 percent of the population have access to clean water.  Silvana is a member of the Roma minority group.  Roma communities face widespread discrimination across Europe in access to resources such as clean water.

The MDGs as a development framework have not impacted on this deep-rooted discrimination or exclusion from water and the effect is felt from Slovenia to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Access to water and sanitation is denied to the Roma because of multi-generational discrimination.  Amnesty reported that the Roma in Slovenia cannot access government or private rented housing. They are forced to live in segregated, unpermitted and secluded settlements without running water, toilets or electricity. The Slovenian government does not provide water to housing without building permits (Amnesty, 2011).

Access to water and sanitation is thus denied through a series of discriminatory practices.  The situation of the Roma in Slovenia is reflected in much of the developing world. Water Org state ‘for the vast majority of the nearly one billion people without safe drinking water, today’s water crisis is not an issue of sacristy but of access’.

It is the systematic social exclusions that are not challenged in the developed or developing world in regards to access to clean drinking water (Melamed and Samman, 2013).

The MDGs have not managed to invoke behaviour change of the government of Slovenia to prioritise the individual’s human right to water and sanitation or ensure the equitable distribution of clean water.

Discussion between the UN and civil society is already taking place to devise a post-2015 MDG development framework (Melamed and Samman, 2013).  It waits to be seen if there will be a real attempt to challenge the barrier of discrimination so communities, such as the Roma in Slovenia will no longer be denied their human right to water.

Anna Keane


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