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Statement on the Right to Water and Sanitation

The WCC Central Committee, meeting in Geneva 16-22 February 2011, approved this Statement on water as a human right.

22 February 2011

1.      Water is life. The right to water is the right to life. Today, however, billions of people all over the world have no or insufficient access to clean water and safe sanitation. Conflicts over increasingly scarce water resources, not only between nations and competing economic sectors but also among and within communities, are already a reality. They can be expected to become more frequent and intense in the years to come. In this situation, those most affected and endangered are the poor and the marginalized, for whom the water crisis poses a dire threat to their health, livelihoods, and very existence. The indiscriminate use and abuse, exploitation and mismanagement of water resources are often aggravated or caused by the pursuit of a profit-oriented, capital growth-centred development paradigm. Discrimination and exclusion are root causes of impoverishment which includes the lack of access to safe water and sanitation that causes the death of two million people every year.

2.      Many governments have invested significant resources in striving to meet their commitment to the Millennium Development Goals to halve the proportion of those without access to safe water and sanitation by 2015. Yet, public authorities still often fail to regulate the ownership, management and distribution of safe water to the full benefit of the most vulnerable and marginalized. Interests of the economically and politically powerful too often prevail over those of the poor.

3.      The United Nations (UN) Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation confirms that it is always the same groups and individuals who are left out, namely those who face physical, institutional, cultural or other barriers, such as women, children, slum dwellers, people living in rural areas, people living in poverty, indigenous groups, minorities, and persons with disabilities. The human right to water and sanitation is a crucial tool for bringing to light and addressing such systemic exclusion and discrimination. Like all other human rights, the underlying principles are non-discrimination, participation and empowerment, transparency and accountability. In the world today, human rights have been an effective ethical and legal framework to do justice to the most vulnerable, the poor and the oppressed.

4.      The World Council of Churches (WCC) Assembly, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2006, affirmed the biblical significance of “water as the cradle of life, an expression of God's grace in perpetuity for the whole of creation” (cf. Genesis 1:2ff, Genesis 2:5ff). The biblical stories and images of water reflect our present day reality and engagement with this basic element of life, reminding us both of the destructive and of the life giving and sustaining nature of water we experience in our lives.

5.      Since WCC Assembly, significant progress has been achieved in the recognition of water as a fundamental right by the international community. Most recently, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a landmark resolution affirming that access to both water and sanitation is a human right. The right to water and sanitation is now almost universally recognized as a legally binding right. A very limited number of governments have not yet publicly affirmed the rights to water and sanitation. Even fewer remain that continue to explicitly reject either the right to water or the right to sanitation. Included among the most prominent are the United Kingdom and Canada.

6.      Churches and their partners have contributed to this achievement, including by working through and with the Ecumenical Water Network based at the WCC. Having achieved recognition, promoting the implementation of the right to water and sanitation both in law and in practice is now crucial. As climate change, population growth, and changing lifestyles increase the pressure on and competition for the world’s water resources, it becomes ever more important to apply the right to water as a guide, safeguard, and yardstick for the actions of governments and other stakeholders, including the church. With its focus on the needs of the most vulnerable, the right to water and sanitation offers a concrete tool to pursue justice for the poor and the marginalised.

7.      As churches we are called to serve and be examples in the way we use and share water. We are called to stand with the most vulnerable as they defend their rights to life, health, and livelihoods in situations marked by scarcity, conflict, occupation and discrimination (Isaiah 1.17, Amos 5.24). We must remember that water is a blessing to be treasured, to be shared with all people and creation, to be protected for future generations.

Therefore, the WCC central committee, meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, 16-22 February 2011:

  1. Rejoices in the recognition of the human right to water and sanitation;
  2. Commends the international community for the progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals related to water and sanitation;
  3. Stresses that more needs to be done to ensure that policies and other measures reach the poor and most vulnerable, as access to water and sanitation is still marked by discrimination, injustice and inequality;
  4. Notes with concern that a diminished understanding of water simply as a commodity that may be sold and traded according to market principles endangers access to and control over this life-giving gift of God for those who are economically, socially, or politically disadvantaged;
  5. Urges governments to adopt sustainable policies that give particular attention to the rights of disadvantaged groups, communities and individuals, and that address the underlying structural reasons for discrimination in access to water and sanitation;
  6. Challenges those governments that have not yet adopted the principle that access to water and sanitation are legally binding human rights to do so;
  7. Encourages governments to incorporate the right to water and sanitation into national legislation and policies, making it enforceable at the national level, and to ensure access to appropriate legal remedies in all cases of violation;
  8. Calls for the establishment of a mandate for a Special Rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation at the UN Human Rights Council;
  9. Reaffirms the commitment of WCC member churches and ecumenical organizations to undertake advocacy efforts for the implementation of the right to water at all levels and to foster international co-operation of churches and ecumenical partners on water concerns through participation in the Ecumenical Water Network (EWN), as expressed in the Statement on ‘Water for Life’ of the WCC Assembly in 2006.

APPROVED