Twelve Years after the Recognition of the Human Right to Water by the UN, Countries Need to Make More Efforts to Widen Access

Issued in Accra on 28th July 2022

Today marks a memorable day in the global fight against water privatization and struggle for water justice. On this day, twelve years ago in 2010 the United Nations General Assembly took the bold step and recognized the human rights to safe and clean water. Though the recognition was symbolic and did not substantially address the core concerns of deprivation of ordinary people and communities, the recognition at that level bolstered water struggles around the world as it became an additional reference point for rights-based advocacy for water justice. Twelve years on, this example demands member states of the UN to similarly affirm the human rights to water in their respective constitutions and to provide the required resources for its implementation, particularly in Africa.

In Africa, the situation of access to water remains dire despite the UN’s recognition of water as a human right. According to UNICEF, about 411 million people lacked access to basic water services as of 2020 on the continent. Three out four people in rural areas lack safely managed water and sanitation services within the context of large access gaps between the richest and the poorest and sub-national regions.

A chief contributor to the above worrying picture of the water sector in Africa has been the insistence by Governments to follow World Bank and IMF economic reform prescriptions to privatise or commercialise water resources and distribution systems which results in the channeling of public funds away from the sector. The persistence in abiding by the neo liberal economic path has led to the gradual and continuous shifting of rights owed to people by governments to markets which have no such rights-based relationship with people. Events in relation to the COVID pandemic, rising cost of energy and poor economic outlook for governments on the continent are paradoxically making governments to double down on this destructive path with the continuous offloading of government responsibilities to the private sector and increasing the vulnerability of ordinary people and communities. Some of the most recent threats can be found in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.

In Nigeria, a Water Resources Bill currently before the legislature vests significant discretionary powers in the Minister of Water Resources on behalf of the government. Subsections 2 and 3 of the bill grants the Minister powers to make regulations, policies and strategies for the proper carrying out of the provisions of the Bill in accordance with other directives he may receive from the President and any guidance from a Council. Linked to these massive powers is the problematic provision that mandates the Minister to promote all aspects of public-private partnerships in the development of water resources infrastructure.

In Kenya, though the Nairobi County denies, Union leaders report to have sighted an MoU that seeks to privatise Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company. Ms. Matilda Kimetto a Branch Secretary of the Nairobi County Workers Union said “We started the investigation of this issue of privatisation in February after I attended the Global Water Partnership Alliance meeting in Spain and one of the trade union members from France told me he had heard that NCWSC was ‘marrying’ a company in France,”

In South Africa with all the possible implications and inherent dangers, private companies will now be allowed to build power plants of any size without a license to meet their own needs and to sell it to the grid, he said.

The Africa Water Justice Network strongly supports civil society organisations and activists in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa and others resisting the continuous dispossession of people of their rights. AWJN also supports their insistence on increased state-led tax-financing of basic social services and calls on the African public, workers, media, lawmakers and students to support efforts by civil society and communities to ensure respect of people’s human rights and the democratic control of basic social services.

The social sector in Africa has been a key target for de-investment, a situation which rather increases in times of economic crisis. As we have seen, under the guise of public private partnerships governments will be shirking more of its social responsibilities and directing people with whom it has a social contract to market actors to claim rights. The AWJN holds the position; more tax-funded social sector investments are needed in times of crisis and not less. Increased tax funded investments are needed in the water sector now to protect lives in the current economic crisis facing countries.

As we once again commend the UN General Assembly for taking the bold step in recognizing the human rights to water, we call on governments, particularly in Africa;

1. To halt water privatization processes in respective countries on the continent and to consider the use of public-public partnerships to build needed capacities.

2. To actively promote and invest in the decentralization of water systems and decision making around water from the community level.

3. To facilitate and provide platforms for national discussions on options for reforming the water sector that ensures universal access, transparency, accountability and mass participation in water governance.

4. To increase budgetary allocations and expenditures in the water sector whilst ensuring spending efficiency and taking action against corruption.

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