*By Leo Heller

The human right to water and sanitation was explicitly recognized by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of July 2010 and the UN Human Rights Council in September 2010, with strong support from the Brazilian government. The General Assembly recognized that it is “an essential human right for the full enjoyment of life”, which can be understood in conjunction with other definitions of human rights, such as that all rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and are related to each other. This recognition, in addition to making the citizens of the various countries bearers of this right and able to claim it in court, brings obligations to governments and public managers.

Compliance with the Human Right to Water (DHA) means ensuring water with availability, physical accessibility, quality and safety, financially accessible and that meets the requirements of acceptability, dignity and privacy. Similar attributes apply to the right to sanitation.

At the present time, when the country is experiencing a dramatic crisis in water supply, strongly affecting its most populous, urbanized and industrialized region, it is worth analyzing the situation from the perspective of the DHA.

Initially, evaluating the current shortage, it appears that, if the principles of the DHA had been observed by those responsible for providing the services, the climatic oscillations we are experiencing would not have turned into a shortage of water for human consumption.

Among the principles of the DHA, Member States of the United Nations are expected to employ the “maximum available resource” to ensure access. Violations of this right are considered situations of regression. Obviously, if the planning of water supply in the affected locations had been done properly, taking into account climatic variations, even the most extreme, the problem would not be occurring with the current magnitude.

The most contemporary scientific trends indicate that water supply systems have to be planned in a strategic, creative, adaptive way, capable of learning from changes in reality. When we effectively incorporate these principles in Brazil, our cities will gain resilience to face water stress situations.

Another aspect that deserves a look from the DHA are the measures adopted or planned to face the crisis. Therein lies the greatest current concern, as it is known that, in situations of restricted consumption, it is precisely the most vulnerable populations that suffer the most from its effects. Precisely this most defenseless population, with less economic capacity, has to resort to alternatives to shortages. This is because it is the most impacted, including in terms of health. I am referring not only to the visibly poorer segment of the population, such as those who live in towns and slums, but also to homeless people, the elderly, children and the prison population.

The current moment requires placing the principles of DHA at the center of public decision-makers' attention. Crisis management, through measures to restrict consumption, whatever they may be – reduction of pressure on networks, punitive economic instruments, campaigns against waste, rotation and rationing – should not assume that all users will suffer equivalent impacts. Unlike universal measures, these must be taken with an affirmative focus on the most vulnerable sections of the population, which must be protected in order to comply with the DHA.

In addition, other DHA principles should also be mentioned at this time: transparency and participation. Measures to restrict consumption are not restricted to a technical decision-making process. It is a process that has direct social implications for the populations of cities. Therefore, the decision-making process should not be exclusive to public managers and specialists. It must be a democratic process, with the participation of representatives of those affected, either in the forums set up to manage the crisis situation, or involving the social participation councils already in place.

*Researcher at Fiocruz-Minas, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Water and Sanitary Sewage and member of the Social Policy Platform


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