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COVID-19 pandemic and the human rights to water and sanitation



On 16 November, a joint statement was issued by the special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, together with 22 other UN Special Procedures mandate-holders.

The statement was originally published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), commemorating World Toilet Day 2020.


COVID-19 pandemic and the human rights to water and sanitation

This year, we celebrate World Toilet Day amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which underscores the vital need to guarantee access to water and sanitation, particularly to those in the most vulnerable situations. For some, we are living in the “new normal”, with the COVID-19 pandemic changing certain ways of living. However, for many, we are living in a time of crisis with our livelihood at stake due to the serious consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many women who live in poverty, the lack of access to water and sanitation exposes them to risks of gender-based violence and endangering their sexual and reproductive health.

We are reminded that one way to prevent the spread of the virus is to practice proper personal hygiene by washing our hands using soap and water. “Washing hands frequently” is a simple daily routine of many but it is a privilege and luxury for those who do not have adequate water and sanitation services and those who face the decision of whether to drink water or use the water to wash their hands.

As human rights experts of the United Nations system, we take this occasion to appeal, once again, for the governments around the world to implement or reinstate the policy of prohibiting water cuts as well as other basic supplies and to guarantee a minimum essential amount of water and essential basic supplies to those who face difficulties to pay for those services and supplies.

We recall that the United Nations General Assembly recognized access to safe drinking water and sanitation as human rights in its resolution 64/292 in 2010 and subsequent resolutions in the last decade. In 2020, the year of the tenth anniversary of such international recognition, we remind all governments and also local and subnational governments of their commitment and their human rights obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights to water and sanitation, paying special attention to the individuals, families and communities in most vulnerable situations, including racially and ethnically marginalized groups.

We emphasize that the hardest hit by COVID-19 are the poorest communities, particularly some indigenous peoples, minorities and impoverished rural communities, as well as people living in crowded conditions and with difficulties in accessing adequate water, sanitation and hygiene services in refugee and internally displaced persons camps, informal settlements or temporary accommodation for migrant workers, among others. On the other hand, these people are often forced to go out every day to earn a living, often commuting in crowded public transportation, which multiplies the risks of contagion. The specific needs of older persons, the most vulnerable in case of infection, have been particularly exacerbated by the pandemic especially for those living alone, in care homes, or in need of assistance. In this context, in which poverty and inequality are evermore growing, it is necessary and urgent to guarantee universal access to water and sanitation, foremost because they are human rights, and also because they are essential to achieving adequate hygiene that allows to curb infections and combat the pandemic.

On 23 March 2020, the former Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Mr. Léo Heller, along with other UN Special Rapporteurs, launched a joint call to all governments to immediately prohibit water cuts to those who cannot pay for water bills. We note with satisfaction that following the joint call, many governments established social protection measures that prohibited water disconnection as part of policy measures to fight against the pandemic, particularly during confinement. However, over time, in many countries that protective measure that shielded those in vulnerable situations has been loosened or has been lifted, despite the fact that the pandemic remains more active than ever, without an effective vaccine yet being available. Even when a vaccine is available, which will hardly be universally accessible, guaranteed access to safe drinking water and sanitation for all will remain essential to combat the virus.

We wish to emphasize that the COVID-19 pandemic is still with us and that its impact not only continues to be devastating for the health and well-being of people around the world, but also continues to increase poverty and the vulnerability of millions of people. Many countries continue to allow water to be disconnected when households cannot pay the water bills. Other countries have not yet considered reconnecting water services to those households whose water had been cut before the pandemic. In many cases, the lack of hygiene facilities resulting from inadequate and insufficient water and sanitation services in prisons, detention centers, schools and other educational facilities remains tragic. The situation of people in homelessness is even more devastating. In addition, we note with concern that this global health emergency as flared-up existing disparities caused by systemic and structural discrimination, policies and practices which have routinely interfered with the access of marginalized population to water and sanitation and to food security.

The impacts are particularly serious for women and girls, in terms of their specific needs of hygiene during menstruation and their heightened risk of suffering sexual violence, despite the fact that it is often women who are the caretaker of the families and girls who collect water for the family. In fact, women and girls are at the highest risk of becoming victims of gender-based violence, including rape, in and around toilets and water and hygiene facilities, especially in public and shared spaces. Further, together with the lack of accessible hygiene facilities and sanitation services, disproportionately affects persons with disabilities worldwide. The legal obligation of ‘reasonable accommodation’ and personalized services includes a right of assistance for ‘activities of daily living’ which include toileting and access to clean water for persons with disabilities. Older persons also continue to be disproportionately impacted in this context, including older persons with disabilities and older women.

Through this joint appeal launched on World Toilet Day, we urge governments, as well as local and subnational governments, to prohibit the disconnection of water service to people in vulnerable situations, prioritizing universal access to water and sanitation, as human rights. We call for people's lives and their livelihoods to take precedence over the benefits and gains sought by the actors who administer these services, whether public or private. Finally, we emphasize that, irrespective of the prevalence of the COVID-19 pandemic or other public health emergencies, prohibiting disconnections of water and basic services to people in vulnerable situations must be extended generally. We reiterate that the minimum core of the human rights to water and sanitation must be guaranteed at all times and under all circumstances. We furthermore recall the global commitments under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular Goal 3 on ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages and Goal 6 on ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, without discrimination on any grounds. It is necessary to urgently promote and implement policy and legal changes transforming the urgent need posed by the public health crisis, into guarantees and safeguards to fulfil the human rights to water and sanitation at all times and circumstances, now and when we overcome the pandemic.


The statement has been signed by the following UN Special Procedures mandate-holders:

Mr. Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation
Mr. Gerard Quinn, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities
Mr. Yao Agbetse, Independent Expert on the human rights situation in the Central African Republic
Ms. Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights
Mr. Saad Alfarargi, Special Rapporteur on the right to development
Ms. Koumbou Boly Barry, Special Rapporteur on the right to education
Mr. David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
Ms. Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
Mr. Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on right to food
Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
Mr. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing
Mr. Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers
Ms. Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons
Mr. Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran
Mr. Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues
Ms. Claudia Mahler, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons
Mr. Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism
Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief
Ms. Elizabeth Broderick (Chair), Ms. Elena Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, Ms. Meskerem Geset Techane, Ms. Ivana RadačIć, Ms. Melissa Upreti (Vice Chair), Working Group on discrimination against women and girls
Mr. Livingstone Sewanyana, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order
Ms. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants


Photo by UNICEF/Manpreet Romana

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