Assessing water, sanitation and hygiene through a human rights lens

Data for monitoring WASH access

The UN Independent Expert Advisory Group [1] (IEAG) coined in 2014 what has become something of a mantra in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda when it stated that data are the lifeblood of decision-making. In its Data Revolution Report, the IEAG urged all stakeholders — governments, private sector, civil society, and international organisations, amongst others — to put in place data labs and interactive platforms aimed at improving the monitoring and reporting of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This call was recently answered by UN-Water [2], who launched the SDG 6 Data Portal. Through maps, charts and tables, the portal brings together data on all SDG 6 global indicators, as well as other key social, economic and environmental data.

Amid all the SDG 6 data integrated in the portal, those on access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services have received a great deal of attention because of their importance in monitoring service coverage and quality. Through their national statistical offices, countries collect data using different mechanisms — and produce a key instrument to potentially inform a wide array of policy decisions, such as allocating budgets, prioritizing areas of investments, or designing strategies for a better implementation towards planned targets. Yet, this evidence-based decision-making is too often missing in practice since, as revealed by the latest GLAAS report [3], the challenge of inadequate human and financial resources many countries face stymies their capacity for an ongoing follow-up and monitoring of the WASH sector.

Despite these caveats, countries have made inroads in setting (and monitoring) national targets that reach beyond basic services. This aim for higher levels of service translates into billions of people having gained access to better WASH services, as presented in the JMP’s latest report (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Progress in access to WASH services between 2000 and 2017, according to the new JMP ladder system [4]. (Source: JMP 2019 report)

Access to WASH is more than mere numbers and percentages

However, when discussing the different types and levels of WASH services, there is one basic element that should not be neglected: access to WASH goes much deeper than mere numbers and percentages. Behind these statistics lie people, and each one of them has the human rights to water and sanitation [5]. Indeed, every one of us is entitled, without discrimination, to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use, and to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.

The five normative dimensions of the human rights to water and sanitation — availability, accessibility, quality and safety, affordability, and acceptability — set some standards and principles for the provision of WASH services. The scope and content of these dimensions have been clarified by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to drinking water and sanitation in his 2015 report on the different levels and types of services (summarized in Table 1).

For instance, with regards to water affordability, the Special Rapporteur explains that in considering the affordability of water services, States must consider all aspects of access, including tariffs, connection charges, storage and household treatment of water, where necessary. In the case of sanitation, these costs range from regular tariffs to connection fees in the case of networked provision, to costs of on-site solutions such as the construction or maintenance of pit latrines and septic tanks. Affordable water and sanitation, however, does not entail that services should be provided free of charge to everyone, but only to those who are not able to pay for the service themselves. As the Special Rapporteur underlines, when people are unable, for reasons beyond their control, to access [water and] sanitation through their own means, the State is obliged to find solutions for ensuring their access to [water and] sanitation free of charge.

Table 1. The normative dimensions of the human rights to water and sanitation. (Source: summarized from the Special Rapporteur’s 2015 report on the different levels and types of services)

A human-rights based analysis of WASH access

In terms of data, this does not only entail collecting disaggregated data (e.g., based on gender [6], geographical location, and socio-economic characteristics) but also, and most importantly, analysing these data through a human rights-based approach in order to address discrimination [7] in WASH services provision. As emphasized in the Special Rapporteur’s 2017 open letter: monitoring and reporting process [should] be guided by a comprehensive human rights framework, particularly on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. This entails, amongst other things, that equality should be treated as an integral part of the indicator’s definition of “safely managed” services and not as an additional, complementary aspect of monitoring.

Therefore, the question of how many people have access to improved WASH services is no longer purely quantitative in the sense of being just a concrete proportion or percentage. Rather, it consists of a series of qualitative questions to understand more about the equity in WASH services. For instance, is the provision of sufficient, safe, acceptable, accessible and affordable WASH services prioritized within national plans? Are the needs of the most vulnerable groups (e.g., children, person with disabilities, elderly persons, pregnant women, refugees and migrants, minorities or chronically ill people) taken into account in pricing policies and in the design of new WASH infrastructure? Are there specific measures to reduce inequities in access and levels of service?

No one-size-fits-all solution for improving WASH access

Furthermore, a human-rights based perspective on WASH can be particularly useful when assessing different technical options for the extension of coverage or the upgrading of service levels, as there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in WASH delivery. This was precisely one of the conclusions reached by the Special Rapporteur in his 2015 report on the different levels and types of services. In his words, the selection of type of service and management model for a given location’s water, sanitation and hygiene services must be assessed in the light of the human rights standards and principles, as well as the principles of core obligations, progressive realization and use of maximum available resources. Any combination between the three types of services — connection to a piped network, communal and shared facilities, and individual on-site solutions — and management models — utilities, small scale service providers (both formal and informal), and self-supply — identified in the report can raise concerns about their compliance with the rights to water and sanitation.

A glaring example of this is the case of piped water and sanitation systems that are managed by formal utilities. Albeit they are often presented as the golden standard for water and sanitation services, they may pose some issues from a human rights perspective. For instance, water supplied by piped networks is not always safe nor reliable, as shown in this article of the WHO bulletin. Furthermore, water and sewerage pipelines are difficult to install in peri-urban areas, where housing settlements follow a somewhat haphazard layout, and this further entrenches inequalities between different parts of a city. Even when they are installed, the high charges for a connection to piped networks may become a significant obstacle for poor households to access the service. And even if appropriate measures are put in place to ensure the affordability of the connection cost, affordability problems may arise later, after the connection cost has been covered.

Indeed, as put by the Special Rapporteur, piped systems often raise affordability concerns for the State, the service provider and the user, since piped water invariably means that households will use more water than they will have used previously with a water source outside the home, and piped sewerage requires considerably more water than other forms of sanitation. Other types of services and management are not immune to these concerns, as seen in Table 2. All these different aspects of service delivery often go unnoticed unless specifically investigated with a human rights lens.

Table 2. Examples of issues, from a human rights perspective, posed by the different types of WASH services. (Source: summarized from the Special Rapporteur’s 2015 report on the different levels and types of services)

The conclusion? WASH data should incorporate human rights standards and principles

Returning to our starting point, it is true that data are a prerequisite for information on progress towards SDG targets, and, in turn, information is essential for planning and priority-setting. Yet, as highlighted in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ 2018 guidance note, data can hide as much as they reveal if their collection and analysis are not guided by a human rights-based approach [8]. In the realm of WASH service delivery, data should incorporate the standards and principles of the human rights to water and sanitation so that those rights are reflected when assessing service levels and implementing improvements. Only in doing so can we best understand and address the underlying causes of inequalities in WASH service levels and, ultimately, leave no one behind.

*This post was prepared as part of the 2020 campaign to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the UN General Assembly on the human right to water and sanitation: a campaign by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

For more information on the campaign see here.


[1] In 2014, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named an Independent Expert Advisory Group on Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, composed by 24 members from civil society, academia, governments and international organizations.

[2] UN-Water is the United Nations inter-agency coordination mechanism for all freshwater related matters, including sanitation.

[3] The Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) is a UN-Water initiative aimed at providing policy- and decision-makers with a reliable, comprehensive and global analysis of the investments and enabling environment to make informed decisions for WASH.

[4] The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) has established a new ladder system for monitoring progress in WASH under the SDGs. For drinking-water, for instance, the ladder consists of five rungs: safely managed, basic, limited, unimproved, and no service (i.e., surface water). Safely managed services are defined as use of improved sources — that is, those that have the potential to deliver safe water by nature of their design and construction — that are accessible on premises, available when needed, free from fecal and chemical contamination, and affordable. Basic services use improved sources not meeting any one of above normative criteria, but located within 30 minutes of the point of use. In limited services, on the other hand, improved sources are located beyond 30 minutes collection time. Improved drinking-water sources include: piped supplies (e.g., households with tap water in their dwelling, yard, or plot, or public standpoints) and non-piped supplies (e.g., boreholes, protected wells, springs, rainwater and packaged or delivered water).

[5] Water and sanitation were recognized as human rights by the United Nations General Assembly (resolution A/RES/64/292) and Human Rights Council (resolution A/HRC/RES/15/9) in 2010.

[6] In its efforts to improve the collection and analysis of gender-disaggregated data for SDG 6, the UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) has recently released an updated edition of its Toolkit on Sex-disaggregated Water Data, providing a set of indicators, methodology and guidelines for gender-responsive water assessment, monitoring and reporting.

[7] Non-discrimination and equity, participation, access to information, accountability and sustainability are some of the cross-cutting principles that govern human rights, including rights with respect to water and sanitation.

[8] According to the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a human rights-based approach to data and statistics should include meaningful participation, disaggregation of data by population groups, self-identification, transparency, and accountability.

Further reading materials:

10 yrs of human rights to WASH

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2020 marks the tenth year since the UN General Assembly adopted resolution explicitly recognizing the human rights to water and sanitation.

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