The handbook on realizing the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation

A review by Mona Niemeyer

Only four years ago, in 2010, water and sanitation were officially recognized as human rights. But what exactly are these rights? And what are states’ obligations to implement them? The handbook on the human rights to water and sanitation prepared by the UN Special Rapporteur, Catarina de Albuquerque, aims to answer these questions. The result is a comprehensive resource which succeeds in bridging theory and practice.

“Water is a limited natural resource and a public good fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” (Art. 1, CESCR, General Comment 15, E/C.12/2002/11).

Already in the introduction the UN Special Rapporteur clarifies that she strongly advises to treat water and sanitation as two distinct and separate human rights. At the moment united in one single human right the issue of sanitation risks to be disregarded.  Water and sanitation, both, have to be available, accessible, acceptable, affordable and fulfill quality standards. But the person who is denied access to water is in a very different position than the person who has access to water but not to adequate sanitation. These different situations demand different responses.

The handbook is divided into 9 chapters which come in individual little booklets: 1 Introduction, 2 Frameworks (legislative, regulatory and policy frameworks), 3 Financing (financing, budgeting and budget-tracking), 4 Services (planning processes, service providers, service levels and settlement), 5 Monitoring, 6 Justice (access to justice), 7 Principles (non-discrimination, equality, information, participation, sustainability), 8 Checklists, 9 Sources (glossary, bibliography etc.).

Each of the chapters illustrates the subject it discusses with many practical and positive examples and provides a checklist at the end. The checklists present questions which help to assess the state of the rights to water and sanitation. The questions are structured around the main actors like state actors, donors, civil society etc. where relevant. A question posed to state actors is, for example: “Does the Constitution guarantee water and sanitation as clearly defined human rights that can be claimed by all?” (Checklist 01, Legislative, regulatory and policy frameworks). The rights to water and sanitation do not explicitly require a constitutional guarantee but anchoring the principles of the rights to water and sanitation within the constitution can certainly help to realize them.

Another interesting aspect worth highlighting is that the handbook clarifies that “corruption is  both a cause and a result of the State’s failure to realize the human rights to water and sanitation and leads to human rights violations” (Ch. 4, p. 38). The relationship between corruption and economic, social and cultural rights has long been underestimated or ignored although corruption often severely challenges the realization of esc rights (See also: Corruption is a violation of the right to education).

The handbook is explicitly drafted to inform and support state actors in the implementation of the rights to water and sanitation. But due to the many examples and checklists it is equally useful for civil society, researchers and others who are determined to promote the human rights to water and sanitation[1].

For more information on water and sanitation visit:

[1] Catarina de Albuquerque. Realising the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation: A Handbook by the UN Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque. 2014, available at




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