World Water Day: Progress Made, Work Still to Do

March 21, 2012

Roma living in Slovenia, 2010.
A Romani family wash with water from the polluted stream nearby their home in an informal settlement in Slovenia. Water from the polluted stream is used for washing, cooking, bathing and drinking.

Earlier this month, the UN made a major announcement: the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target on access to safe drinking water worldwide has been met.

This comes years ahead of the 2015 deadline, and is one of the first of the MDG targets—focused on reduction of extreme poverty and associated development issues—to be met. Yes, it’s a huge accomplishment. But, it masks extraordinary human rights violations.

While there are flaws to the MDG structure, including that they lack explicit alignment with human rights, the MDGs highlight many ways in which human rights are inextricably linked.

The MDG target for access to safe drinking water was to halve the proportion of the population living without between 1990 and 2015 – that is, to increase the percentage of people with access to 88%. Now, in 2012, 89% of the world’s population has access to safe drinking water, helping to advance the rights to health, adequate housing, and other issues, including other MDGs on child survival, maternal mortality, education, and gender equality.

right to heath starts with proper sanitationBut what of that 11% that still doesn’t have safe drinking water? And does that 89% have access to a source of water they can depend on to be in good repair, accessible and affordable?

The MDGs are a global aggregate. This means we can reach them without meeting everyone’s needs. But human rights are universal: settling for 89% is unacceptable.

Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by poverty and other rights violations, so let’s imagine being a woman in that 11%. In all likelihood, you are among the poorest of the poor, living in a remote area that is hard to reach, in a slum your government doesn’t even recognize as a legal settlement, or in a home your government doesn’t recognize as yours because owning property isn’t a legal option for women.

Reaching you takes more work, or a new legal framework, or both. If you live in a rural area, you may spend hours a day collecting water that makes you and your family sick (unsafe water kills around 3000 children globally each day); and keeps you from going to school, working or growing food. Whether you live in a village or a slum of a million people, looking for water puts you at risk of physical and sexual violence. But there’s nothing you can do. After all, you can’t live without water, even if that water ultimately kills you.

These are human rights violations, perpetuated by lack of access to clean drinking water, itself a rights violation. If you are living with HIV or a disability, are gay, lesbian or transgender, or a member of another marginalized group such as immigrants, you face more discrimination, putting basic services farther out of reach.

Then there’s the MDG target to halve the proportion of people living without sanitation, to reach 75% access by 2015. This is one of the MDG targets that is furthest out of reach. At the current pace, it is estimated that this target will not be reached in sub-Saharan Africa for another 200 years. Sanitation is critical; without it, clean water can’t stay clean for long. It is a basic element of adequate housing and critical to the sustainability of safe water.

Amnesty International’s work is based on the interdependence of all human rights. One implication is that it requires hard, comprehensive work to get us to truly universal access. It’s great news that we are seeing progress on the MDGs and, in turn, on improved health and reduced poverty. But we aren’t done.

It’s time to reenergize to reach that last 11% and ensure the 89% now with access keeps it on a sustainable basis. It’s time to focus on providing sanitation worldwide. And it’s time to recognize that there are marginalized communities everywhere, even here at home – in Alabama, the anti-immigrant law, H.B. 56, has effectively cut off access to water for many (and not just immigrants).

So, for World Water Day on March 22, join our Demand Dignity Campaign on Facebook  to stay involved with our work on economic, social and cultural rights and celebrate progress like that on water. Then we’ll get back down to business.