“No water, no health, no employment, no education”.

Catarina de Albuquerque, CEO of 'Sanitation and Water for All' (SWA): "After Covid-19 passes, we cannot give up (...) we have to prevent before we can reach a cure".

In the framework of World Water Day, Catarina de Albuquerque, who was the first UN rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water, spoke to the Urban Water sector of EUROCLIMA+, a programme funded by the European Union, about the importance of ensuring universal access to water and sanitation as a tool for tackling climate change. Below is an excerpt from the interview.

Latin America has a third of the world's water resources due to its large number of rivers and aquifers, but this region is facing various challenges and problems, such as climate variability, the high degree of contamination of water bodies, unplanned urban demography, a loss of biodiversity or overexploitation of soils that affect water resources, obstacles to ensuring universal access to water and sanitation, one of the main objectives of the seven projects that the European Union is financing and which are part of the Urban Water sector of the EUROCLIMA+ programme.

How do we achieve access to water and sanitation for all? In the framework of World Water Day, which is commemorated every year on March 22, from the Urban Water sector we spoke with Catarina de Albuquerque, CEO of ‘Sanitation and Water for All’ (SWA), a stakeholder alliance to eliminate inequalities related to the human rights to water and sanitation, and who was also the first United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water.

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The human right to water and sanitation was recognised as such by the United Nations in 2010, when I was Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water. What was this process like?

When I was appointed UN rapporteur in 2008, the human right to water and sanitation had not yet been recognised. Germany and Spain were the countries behind this fight, but it was the Bolivian government that proposed a draft resolution to the UN on July 28, 2010 to recognise these rights. When I heard about it, I went to the Bolivian representative and asked him to promise me that he would not forget about sanitation. He kept the promise and, when he presented the draft resolution, he read parts of my report to justify why sanitation also needs to be included. It is a very nice story and very moving.

But this is still a very young right... what has this achievement meant?

This is the youngest human right in existence; no other human right has been recognised since 2010. It is true that it seems surprising that humanity had to wait thousands of years for the recognition of this right that seems basic to us.

One of the achievements of Civil Society following this recognition with UN Member States, was the inclusion of a specific goal on Water and Sanitation in the Sustainable Development Goals. The existence of this goal puts all the attention on access to water, sanitation, hygiene (...) this integrated vision of water was only possible because of the efforts of many, but also because the right had been recognised. This recognition has also influenced the work we do at SWA, the human right is highly visible in our strategy. Our mission is to eliminate inequalities in the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation and this is possible because the right was recognised.

 

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And to ensure that these inequalities are eliminated, how do we bridge the urban-rural divide?

This principle of leaving no one behind means that we must now reach those left furthest behind first. We know that we will not achieve universal access if we do not start with the most excluded and marginalised. We must realise that we need more than infrastructure. We need laws, we need policies to help enshrine this principle of fighting inequalities at the national level that do not harm people.

Another thing we at SWA are doing is joining forces with other development agendas, such as climate change and gender, because I think it is essential that all other sectors take ownership of water and sanitation, and become the biggest and strongest advocates for water and sanitation, because if there is no water, there is no health; if there is no water, there is no employment; if there is no water, there is no equality, no education, no women's and girls' rights, and so on.

How to ensure access to water and sanitation for all?

We must start by verifying which groups suffer from lack of access to services and then design public policies that address these problems. Then we must have budgets to guarantee access to water and sanitation for these people. People often say: "But those who live in informal settlements don't want to pay for water". This is a lie. They pay a lot more for water today than many of us. They certainly pay a lot more than I do. Why? Because by living in informal settlements they are not benefiting from the official sewerage network, which has water that is normally of a higher quality and more regulated in terms of frequency and price.

I have seen many places in the world where people living in these settlements pay 10, 50, sometimes 100 times more for water, because they have to buy it from informal vendors who are often synonymous with very expensive uncontrolled water of poor quality.

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This year the theme of World Water Day is 'valuing water', how do we approach this theme, how do we value water?

Without water there is no health. Water and sanitation protect us from preventable diseases, such as Covid-19 or other pandemics, diarrhoea, cholera, etc. They also promote economic development, bringing an estimated 1.5% growth in Gross Domestic Product, due to the likely reduction in health care costs, and also in increased productivity. Access to water also frees up women, recouping the 200 million hours each day that women around the world spend collecting water. And in terms of education, when children have access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene, they have a better environment for studying, they go to school, they stay in school, they learn and develop their full potential.

We also talk about the monetary value of water. Water service, in most cases, cannot be free, because the state has limited financial resources to realise all human rights and it must focus on the realisation of these rights for the most marginalised people. I think that tariffs that are fair, that provide for exemptions from payment in cases of extreme poverty are important. There are very interesting cases of countries where the introduction of water tariffs has allowed the government to install sewerage in informal settlements, and to invest in access to water and sanitation.

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What is the relationship between water and climate change?

Water is being greatly affected by climate change. There are countries suffering from lack of water, like the island of Tuvalu in the Pacific, for example, where all the water they had in storage has run out because it didn't rain and planes had to arrive with bottles of water because people had no drinking water. In Bangladesh, for example, the surface water is highly polluted by the garment industry, we see the rivers red today, green tomorrow, then black, because of the colours they use to dye fabrics. There are places with excess water, where, if we don't have good sewage systems, the water floods the open-air systems. In Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, I saw children walking in the street with water half-way up their legs, and the rainwater was mixed with sewage coming out of the sewers, a huge public health hazard.

The truth is that we must think in a more integrated way. It is important to work with other sectors, such as tourism, industry, agriculture, to find solutions for saving water, but the water and sanitation sector can also do more. I think the tariff is a good psychological measure for people to save. Having a price means that we can value it more. It is essential that the two sectors, the people working on water and sanitation and those working on environment and climate, work together, so that the water and sanitation people do not forget that we are experiencing a climate crisis, and on the other hand, so that the climate and environment ministers do not forget that water is the sector that is most affected by climate change.

At this juncture of the pandemic, water has taken on a central role. Why?

It is true that now, in the context of this pandemic, we cannot forget that prevention is the best cure, as long as we do not have vaccines for everyone. We cannot forget this very important message. Of course vaccination is important, but this pandemic will not be the last, unfortunately, and it is not the first, and for everyone, the best way to prevent pandemics is water, sanitation, access to drinking water and soap so that we can wash our hands.  After Covid-19 has passed, we cannot give up, we have to keep fighting for water, for sanitation, for hygiene, more political will, more budgets, everything, we have to be prepared, and we have to prevent before we can reach a cure.

 

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In the Urban Water sector of EUROCLIMA+ we have seven projects to ensure better access to quality water for inhabitants. How can we continue working on water and sanitation for all in urban areas of Latin America?

I have seen interesting work done around the world in urban areas to increase resilience. One of them is, for example, the construction of water storage mechanisms for when water is lacking, as well as the design of infrastructure to ensure access to water and sanitation.

But I believe that the solutions, more than technical solutions, political solutions, must come from the ministerial level, the ministers responsible for water and sanitation, who are often also responsible for climate and environment, must bring in general directors from both areas to work together; they must carry out multi-stakeholder consultations; they must ensure the participation of the people who live in these settlements so that they can share the problems they suffer. That's why I would talk more about procedures than solutions, because solutions can change from country to country. What is important is that politicians work together across different sectors and when they are in the process of identifying policies and bringing solutions, that they bring in Academia, Civil Society, the inhabitants of the neighbourhoods to the table, to work together and not with their backs to each other.

Water management with an urban resilience perspective from the EUROCLIMA+ programme

A total of seven projects will be implemented through this component of the EUROCLIMA+ programme. For more information on each project please visit this link: http://euroclimaplus.org/en/proyectos-agua-en

Profile: Catarina de Albuquerque is currently the CEO of Sanitation and Water for All (SWA). She was the first United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water. Between 2004 and 2008 she chaired the negotiations of the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus on December 10,2008.

She holds a Law Degree from the Faculty of Law of the University of Lisbon (Portugal) and a DES from the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales (Geneva, Switzerland).

See an excerpt from this interview (in Spanish):

 

Contacts

For information about the Urban Water sector of EUROCLIMA+, write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

 

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