Safe, Sufficient, Acceptable, Accessible, Affordable

In 2010, when the U.N. Human Rights Commission recognized the human right to water, it stated that people must have access to water that is not only sufficient but also safe, acceptable, and affordable. The United Nations Development Program defines affordable as no more than approximately 2.5–3% of monthly household income.[45] Yet, vast disparities in the cost of water still exist for people around the globe — and often for people living in different areas of the same cities.

In Jakarta, Manila, and Nairobi, for instance, studies have shown that the most impoverished residents, those who live in slum neighborhoods, spend 5–10 times more on water than people who live in wealthier areas of the same city.[46] In the United States, it is no surprise that the greatest violations of the human right to water affect low-income communities, who lack water and sanitation services or live with contaminated groundwater and outdated, leaky systems, and the homeless, who often lack any secure access to water and sanitation.[47]

UUSC’s partners know firsthand that gaining access to affordable water is much easier said than done.

In South Africa, UUSC worked with the Coalition Against Water Privatization (CAWP) and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witswatersrand to support the case of Lindiwe Mazibuko and other residents of Phiri in Soweto. They brought suit against the city of Johannesburg and the national Water Ministry for failures to protect residents’ human right to water as required in the South African constitution.

These residents lived in a historically segregated neighborhood that had been denied improved water access under apartheid. The constitution mandates that the government must take a positive, proactive role in ensuring that South Africans enjoy the human right to water.[48] Yet, Johannesburg Water established a policy of providing only 6 kiloliters (approximately 1,300 gallons, the amount an average U.S. family of four uses in four days[49]) of water per accountholder per month. The utility also began installing prepaid meters that residents would have to use to access water over that minimum. The South Gauteng High Court ruled that the prepaid meters were unlawful and the allocation unfair.[50] While the ruling was weakened after appeals to the Constitutional Court, Johannesburg Water doubled the free basic water amount during the litigation.[51]


Partner Spotlight: Mi Cometa

Cesar Cardenas Ramirez describes how, when he began his work, many of the people in his neighborhood in Guayaquil, Ecuador, had no water access. To obtain water for home use, residents had to buy water from private water vendors who would bring big water tankers into the neighborhood. It was 800 Ecuadoran sucres for a tank of water, which would last a family two to three days. As Ramirez recalls, “We investigated and discovered that the water utilities were in private hands. . . . They said that they were going to give us water in the year 2020.”[52] The utility was held by a U.S. corporation, Bechtel, through a concession agreement with the local subsidiary, InterAgua. Thus began the work of Mi Cometa (My Kite), an organization focused on the human right to water, against the commodification of water and its negative effects.

Mi Cometa march

Ramirez explains, “It has been many years that we have been saying that water cannot be a for-profit enterprise. . . . It has to be administrated without making profit, because to make profit would impede the poorest from getting access.” Mi Cometa spread the word, held marches, and circulated petitions. They found solidarity with other neighborhoods that didn’t have access to affordable, sufficient water. They protested each month in front of the utility and municipal buildings and engaged the support of local churches.

In 2006, UUSC supported Mi Cometa to bring attention to their legal case: the Hepatitis A poisoning of 158 children in Guayaquil. The Ecuadoran Health Ministry fined InterAgua $1.5 million for the affected people and provided free medical care for the children. But Mi Cometa was not satisfied with this local victory and moved forward to enact sweeping national change in water access. By 2009, Mi Cometa’s campaign resulted in a new constitutional provision that prohibited privatization of water utilities and placed oversight of the utilities in the hands of communities. The same year, the organization successfully won a case that fined InterAgua $5.5 million for overcharges in sanitation services along with debt forgiveness for water customers. By 2011, Mi Cometa had organized citizen watch committees to monitor public services like water and sanitation throughout the country.

These committees won senior discounts, cancellation of debts for seniors and people with serious illnesses, and a lifeline water rate for over 4,500 families in extreme poverty.

In 2012, Mi Cometa’s engagement convinced the water utility Veolia, which bought the contract from Bechtel, to recognize the human right to water and conduct a human rights impact assessment — the first for a major water utility — at Guayaquil.[53] The following year, Mi Cometa was directly involved in national assembly negotiations that established a basic minimum amount of water for all citizens in the new water law. The organization is now facilitating a human-right-to-water curriculum in schools, advocating for vulnerable populations, sharing information on the human right to water through a weekly radio podcast, and working with utilities to implement vital free water and to ban water shutoffs for those facing economic hardship.

Mi Cometa has won major victories for the human right to water, but Ramirez explains that major challenges remain.

Consumers are still facing water shutoffs. The president of Ecuador recently announced that he would establish a minimum amount of free water that must be made available to all people, but Ramirez worries that “to establish a minimum amount for the human right to water is actually to restrict the human right to water. It establishes a quota for each person. . . . So we are working very hard to try to stop this from going forward.”[54]

Thankfully, Mi Cometa has established dialogue with the utility that can lead to real progress when consumers face shutoffs. As Ramirez notes, “With UUSC, we have been able to maintain this relationship directly with the utility.” He reports that the utility is listening to them, thanks to their multipronged approach that includes popular mobilization, shareholder pressure, and the face-to-face relationships that now link consumer advocates with the utility’s management.


Partner Spotlight: HIC-AL

On November 26, 2014, UUSC partner the Habitat International Coalition of Latin American (HIC-AL) achieved a major victory for sufficient water in Mexico: years of litigation and lobbying convinced the Supreme Court of Justice of Mexico to declare that the human right to water is violated if a person receives less than 100 liters per day.[55]

Residents of Ampliacion Tres de Mayo and courageous human rights defenders whose cases were brought to the Mexican government through UUSC partner HIC-AL.

The path to this victory began in 2008, when HIC-AL convened a group of experts and pro bono lawyers to investigate violations of the human right to water in Morelos. With seed funding from UUSC, HIC-AL collaborated with local community organizers to investigate the situations of women living without access to water in Ampliacion Tres De Mayo. They overcame a first hurdle in 2010, when the local court agreed to hear the case of Lidia Velazquez Reynoso, a woman who had no water line to her home and who had been working with organizers for a decade to convince the municipality to provide water access for the community.

HIC-AL’s Maria Sylvia Emmanuelli recalls how they decided to tackle these most stark violations:

“The women are really poor and without connections to others . . . We had women going to the river to take water, and the river was very polluted. . . . We wanted to solve a problem . . . and we wanted to have a positive decision.”[56]

Ironically, the local and national government had invested in water infrastructure literally across the road at water parks, golf courses, and thousand-unit weekend condos for Mexico City residents complete with swimming pools.

At first, the courts affirmed the human right to water but tied it to property rights, a decision that was untenable and violated international law. In 2012, HIC-AL’s case moved forward with an appeal that affirmed the human right to water independent from ownership of water or land. In the same year, the human right to water was written into Mexico’s new constitution, declaring:

“Any person has the right of access, provision and drainage of water for personal and domestic consumption in a sufficient, healthy, acceptable and affordable manner”

It also declares that it is the state’s responsibility to implement these rights.[57]

Still, real change was slow in coming. In fact, the court at first determined that the municipality had fulfilled its obligation when it connected Reynoso’s home to the water system, even though HIC-AL’s notaries found that water only reached the home sporadically, for as little as four hours, one day per week. To alleviate the suffering of the women in Ampliacion Tres De Mayo, UUSC and HIC-AL constructed cisterns for water collection and storage while at the same time filing their case with the Supreme Court, urging the high court to acknowledge that municipalities must make a sufficient amount of water accessible.

Now, Emanuelli reflects, the women feel they have achieved middling success: “For them, the situation really changed for the better. . . . We can say that now, they are in the situation of the majority of the people in [the area]. . . . We didn’t really win all we wanted. But from their perspective, they are in a better situation than before.”

HIC-AL will continue its work, using the precedent this decision sets to support the human right to water in Mexico and urging lawmakers to make it possible for Mexicans on the ground to secure these rights. Emmanuelli notes that real solutions, not simply declarations, are the goal:

“We don’t want to have a good decision only on paper. . . . We don’t [simply] want to have a decision in the Supreme Court. . . . What I want is to have the people in a better situation than before.”[58]

Now, HIC-AL is working on the implementation of the Mexican Supreme Court case and blocking the adoption of a national water law proposed by the Mexican government that would moot the Mexican constitution’s provision on the human right to water.

NEXT: Systemic Discrimination


[45] United Nations, Water for Life, “Human Right to Water and Sanitation,” http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/human_right_to_water.shtml.

[46] United Nations, Water for Life, “Human Right to Water and Sanitation,” http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/human_right_to_water.shtml.

[47] United Nations, Report of the Special Rapporteur . . . Mission to the United States of America, 17–18.

[48] Anel du Plessis, “A Government in Deep Water?: Some Thoughts on the State’s Duties in Relation to Water Arising from South Africa’s Bill of Rights,” Review Of European Community & International Environmental Law 19, no. 3 (Nov 2010), 326.

[49] Estimates for U.S. water usage range from approximately 80 to 176 gallons of water per day. U.S. Geological Survey, “Water Questions & Answers,” http://water.usgs.gov/edu/qa-home-percapita.html; Barbara Rose Johnson et al., Water Cultural Diversity and Global Environmental Change, 20; The Water Information Program, “Water Facts,” http://www.waterinfo.org/resources/water-facts.

[50] For a synopsis of the rulings, see ESCR-Net, Lindiwe Mazibuko & Others v City of Johannesburg & Others, Case CCT 39/09, [2009] ZACC 28, ESCR-Net, http://www.escrnet.org/docs/i/1110326.

[51] The Constitutional Court affirmed the human right to water in South Africa but refused to rule on a reasonable minimum amount. For interpretation, see http://www.dwaf.gov.za/dir_ws/DWQR/subscr/ViewComDoc.asp?Docid=565; Patricia Jones, interview by author, December 18, 2014.

[52] Cesar Ramirez, interview by author, December 8, 2014.

[53] Unfortunately, Veolia changed its business plan and has not yet conducted the impact assessment in Guayaquil.

[54] Cesar Ramirez, interview by author, December 8, 2014.

[55] “Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice sets precedent on the human right to water and sanitation in Reynoso case,” HIC-AL Boletin, December 5, 2014.

[56] Maria Silvia Emanuelli, interview by author, December 4, 2014.

[57] Political Constitution of the United Mexican States, http://portal.te.gob.mx/sites/default/files/consultas/2012/04/cpeum_ingles_act_08_octubre_2013_pdf_19955.pdf.

[58] Maria Silvia Emanuelli, interview by author, December 4, 2014.

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