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Human Rights Day: Access to safe and clean water

Human Rights Day: Access to safe and clean water - article image
Océane Bidault

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become the most translated document in the world, available in more than 500 languages. Seventy-one years on from this commitment to establish equal dignity and a common standard for all, populations across the world lack access to clean drinking water. Papua New Guinea, Uganda, Niger, Mozambique, India and Pakistan are countries in which the highest portion of society has no access to clean water within a half-hour round trip with upwards of 60% of their populations lacking a clean water supply close to home. The inequality is unjust at a time where much of the developed world takes clean water for granted. Charities like Dig Deep are doing their best to redress the imbalance. Waterlogic is proud to support their initiative to provide clean water and sanitation to rural communities in Kenya.

Is access to clean water a human right?

Human rights are rights inherent to every person on earth. They include the right to life, liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to work and education. As specified in UN Resolution 64/292, every human has the right to clean water and sanitation. It states that clean drinking water and sanitation are “essential to the realization of all human rights,” which demonstrates how the UN recognizes that access to an adequate supply of clean drinking water is the very bedrock on which society builds every other human right — but how can we define what ‘adequate’ means?

We need between 50 and 100 litres of water every day

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people need between 50 and 100 litres of water every day to satisfy needs such as washing and drinking. However, significant water usage doesn’t just happen in households: office buildings consume upwards of 50 litres of water per employee on a typical working day. The WHO has also created the Guidelines For Drinking Water Quality that stipulate the supply should be free from microorganisms and chemical contamination, as well as free from strange odours, colours and tastes. Finally, the United Nations Development Program suggests that water should not cost more than 3 per cent of total household annual income.

Despite the strong directives and earnest intentions, 785 million people across the world lack a basic clean drinking water service; that is, a treated water source found within a round trip of no more than thirty minutes from the individual’s home. While upwards of 144 million people globally living in poor and rural areas must rely on untreated surface water as their only water source, meaning they risk contracting diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio, every time they take a sip.

Is the right to water the same in every country?

UN Resolution 64/292 calls on states and international organizations to supply financing, construction resources, and technological expertise to help provide safe, clean, accessible, and affordable drinking water for all. Countries including the United Kingdom, USA and Australia declined to vote on the resolution. What does that mean for their population’s right to clean water?


The Irish Government does not define water as a basic human right either in the Irish Constitution, or in any of the laws pertaining to the public supply of water. In fact, the government-led Irish Water now charges residents for using a volume of water that exceeds a certain threshold, which has drawn criticism from the Right2Water campaign that considers free access to clean water as a fundamental human right.

United Kingdom

The UK government recognizes everyone has a right to water and adequate sanitation. These fall under the bracket of a person’s right to an adequate standard of living, as stipulated in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The UK even recognizes sanitation as a human right under international law and recently committed to double ambitions to provide water, sanitation and hygiene to at least 60 million people across the United Kingdom.


In the United States, clean water does not form part of the US Constitution. The Bill of Rights makes no reference to it, nor does the US Code. The place you’re likely to find a declaration that people have a right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water” is in the California Water Code. However, even this stipulates that there’s no obligation on the government to provide the water; meaning it’s little more than an acknowledgement of a human right.

1-in-3 people lack access to safe drinking water​​

Despite the range of declarations that recognise water as a fundamental human right, the difference in access across nations is clear to see. In countries such as Mozambique, locals have as little as ten litres of water to use a day — the amount needed to run a shower for one minute — whereas Europeans can get through as much as 300 litres. Up to 50% of Senegalese schools have no water or sanitation supply at all, while those that do rarely have separate facilities for boys and girls. What makes the disparities worse is how people living in less economically developed cities like Jakarta, Manila, and Nairobi pay between 5x and 10x more for clean water than those who live in high-income cities like London or New York. Additionally, merely connecting to the local supply can cost six months’ income for the deprived 20% of households living in urban Kenya.

The latest research suggests up to 1-in-3 people in the world lacks access to safe drinking water, and this comes at a time where water as a resource is becoming increasingly scarce on a global scale. As water becomes scarcer — everyone will soon be forced to work together to find a solution that works for all.