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Human Rights And Water Security In Our Uncertain Times

THE HAGUE, Netherlands

The latest in a series of guest columns written for OOSKAnews and The Water Diplomat by participants in different parts of the international water community. 

In this article, Tobias Schmitz discusses human rights, water security and climate change in advance of a 13 October UNDP-SIWI Water Governance Facility high-level webinar on the subject. Tobias is senior advisor on water resources and monitoring at the Global Institute for Water Environment and Health in Geneva. His work focuses on progress monitoring in the water sector related to different state commitments such as the targets and indicators of Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water and sanitation and the human rights to water, sanitation and a healthy environment. He is currently a member of the SDG 6 core group of the Netherlands, providing support to the government of Kenya on SDG 6 monitoring, working with UN Habitat to support the transition to the country-led phase of SDG 6, and working with the Geneva Water Hub for the next development phase of monthly news publication "The Water Diplomat". He worked as an alternate on the Asian Water Council to develop the water and ecosystems component of the first Asian International Water Week. Previously Tobias was Director of Operations at Waterlex International Secretariat, working to support the implementation of the human right to water. He holds a PhD in Integrated Water Resources Management from Radboud University in the Netherlands with a focus on institutional responses to water scarcity in South Africa. He hails from Lesotho, Southern Africa.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, public awareness of the crucial importance of access to safe water and sanitation to maintain personal and domestic hygiene and to protect life itself has rapidly increased, reminding us of the reasons for declaring water as a human right.

Ten years after the recognition of water as a human right, UNDP-SIWI’s (United Nations Development Programme - Stockholm International Water Institute) water governance facility is hosting a webinar on "Human Rights and Water Security in an Age of Uncertainty" featuring three UN Special Rapporteurs (13 October, 16:00 CET).

Climate change presents an obstacle to the realisation of water related human rights. These go beyond the right to water for personal and domestic uses, including the right to sanitation, the water required to produce sufficient food, the oversight by indigenous peoples of their natural resources including water, and the rights of present and future generations to a healthy environment. Balancing these - sometimes competing - rights requires an integrated approach already catered for in water law along with additional tools such as water permit systems and minimum flow guarantees.

Water is the main medium through which climate change impacts upon human populations and ecosystems. Climate change impacts on peoples’ rights to water and sanitation by causing floods and droughts, changes in precipitation and temperature extremes that result in water scarcity, contamination of drinking water and the spread of disease. Climate projections indicate that extreme precipitation events, heatwaves and droughts will become more intense and frequent. Melting glaciers will first increase streamflow, placing pressure on upland lakes and man-made infrastructure and eventually result in lower flows. Higher temperatures affect water quality, such as through harmful algal blooms in lakes and estuaries which provide livelihoods as sources of fish and other foods.

Water, climate change and human rights are therefore strongly interconnected areas and it is with increasing urgency that decision makers and practitioners require not only analysis of these interconnections but especially clear pathways to reduce risks and maximise the protection offered to citizens, especially those of vulnerable groups.

UN World Water Development Report 2020 (WWDR) was dedicated to water and climate change and its opening statement declares that “climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, threatening the effective enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation for potentially billions of people”. It recommends that human rights principles should be integrated into water stewardship principles and integrated water resources management (IWRM).

In 2019, the WWDR had highlighted three key water related impacts of climate change, i.e. (i) increases in water related disasters, (ii) increases in areas suffering from water stress and (iii) increases in poor water quality related fatalities.

The World Bank’s 2019 report "Quality Unknown: The Invisible Water Crisis" drew attention to the growing but hidden problem of water quality, highlighting gaps in data collection and monitoring. This year, the United in Science 2020 report shows that 90% of the impact of natural disasters is water related.

A key challenge currently is that climate change, water and human rights are governed by separate international and national legal regimes as well as distinctive institutional settings, which complicates action in areas where they intersect. It is therefore crucial to highlight areas of commonality upon which integrated action can be built. Where uncertainties remain, recourse to the courts is possible: already, more than 800 climate related cases have been heard worldwide, often linking to human rights guarantees.

Over the past decade emphasis was placed on clarifying the obligations of state and non-state actors, otherwise known as "structural indicators": the legal instruments and institutional mechanisms in place for the promotion and protection of human rights. Human rights treaty bodies and Special Rapporteurs have clarified state obligations in relation to climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement, hailed as a major landmark in international climate negotiations, contained the first explicit reference to human rights. And yet a fruitful and underutilised source of structural reference points is international water law: landmarks such as the 1972 Stockholm declaration, the 1977 Mar Del Plata declaration, the 1992 Dublin Statement, or the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention make (in)direct reference to the human right to water and locate it within operational mechanisms for IWRM as a key vehicle to manage different and competing claims on water at the level of the hydrological cycle.

Emphasis on structural indicators is to the detriment of process indicators related to budgets, government data collection and monitoring tools and reporting methodologies, assessments of institutional capacity and/or bottlenecks - that translate long lists of obligations into the desired outcomes. Three domains of action are particularly important to clarify process indicators: National Adaptation Plans of Action, Nationally Determined Contributions, and Integrated Water Resources Management. The next phase of realisation of these rights requires close attention to boosting the operational mechanisms of ecosystems protection at catchment level as well as implementation of the Dublin principle of subsidiarity by paying attention to the empowerment and integration of human rights within local, community controlled Water User Associations and reforming water permit systems to prioritise their needs.

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