By Edward D. ‘Ned’ Breslin

The United Nations General Assembly declared water and sanitation a human right on July 28. The non-binding resolution is the product of close to two decades of often heated discussion on whether humans have a right to clean water and a latrine. Activists have been pushing this issue in an effort to force the world to finally address the horror playing itself out in billions of people’s lives every day, in all corners of the world. The hope is that this resolution will lead to action on the ground, and a dramatic improvement in the lives of women, children and men in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The resolution specifically “declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.” It comments on the need to address the considerable gaps in access to water (over 880 million people) and sanitation (2.6 billion people) that lead to nearly two million deaths a year from water- and sanitation-related diseases, primarily from diarrhea, and which primarily afflict children. And it stresses the need for governments and international organizations to “scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable water and sanitation for all,” a position the UN is expected to soon clarify. In sum, the resolution functions as a reminder to leaders of their commitments to achieving MDG targets to reduce, by half, the number of people without access to clean water and hygienic sanitation facilities by 2015.

The rights-debate, however, has always been complex, contentious and confusing at times, and moving from resolution to practice will prove difficult. My hope is that this resolution will lead to a fundamental reconsideration of sector practice that will truly transform lives overseas with sustainable water and sanitation provision, and not degenerate (as is very possible) into a simplistic call for more money.

Reconsideration is needed because there is growing evidence of water point failure and abandoned, disused latrines scattering the landscapes of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) suggests that a catastrophe is spreading across Africa —approximately 50,000 rural water points are broken and $215 to 360 million (USD) of investment wasted because of poor programming and careless implementation. IIED highlights troubling data from Mali, where 80 percent of the water points in the Menaca region are ‘dysfunctional’ and surveys from northern Ghana indicate that 58 percent of existing water points need repair. The Interhemispheric Resource Centre (IRC, Holland) makes the case that, “In the last 20 years, 600,000 to 800,000 hand pumps have been installed in Sub-Saharan Africa, of which some 30 percent are known to fail prematurely, representing a total failed investment of between $1.2 and $1.5 billion.”

The challenge cannot simply be to secure more money from donor countries and international NGOs, and a push for greater scale. Instead, the emphasis must be on better results to ensure that all investments made toward water and sanitation rights do in fact transform lives in a lasting way. Water must flow forever and people must never go back to defecating in the open if we are truly to move from the rhetoric of rights to the reality of rights on the ground.

Reconsidered programming should thus focus on impact and results over time. It will force implementing agencies—whether multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and UNICEF, bilateral agencies such as USAID, international NGOs such as Water For People, microfinance institutions engaged in the water and sanitations sector such as Opportunity International and others—to fundamentally shift their metrics from counting the number of annual beneficiaries they support (the current sector norm) to showing that investments made 5 to 10 years ago are still functioning, still providing water and sanitation services. It will no longer be acceptable to simply say we helped 600,000 people last year. A rights-based program will mean that we will have to show that our investments in water and sanitation in the past are still allowing people to exercise their rights to water and sanitation now and far into the future. This will be a dramatic shift and one that will help ensure the overused word ‘sustainability’ has as much of a place in the current dialogue as that of rights.

Most importantly, this resolution will need to look at rights and responsibilities in tandem. This is perhaps best illustrated in Bolivia, whose Ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solon, was clearly a key player in pushing this UN resolution through. Bolivia takes the issue of rights and responsibilities seriously, and our experience is they are applying it in practice.

In Bolivia, Water For People has formed an impressive coalition with municipal governments, communities, local NGO and private sector partners. The former Mayor of the municipality Villa G Villarroel (Cuchumuela), David Valásquez, spearheaded an initiative to get every family, school and clinic within his municipality covered with improved water supplies and sanitation. The new mayor is continuing this effort. The government is paying 50 percent of all hardware costs, plus all the costs associated with municipal oversight and support (staff, transport costs, etc.). Communities are co-financing their water schemes as well, with the balance in funding coming from Water For People. We provide a bit of financial support to the municipality, but the bulk of this program is being paid for by the municipal government. They are the leaders—it is their program. Water For People is a catalyst but no projects are being laced with our logos. It’s not our work.

As a result of this local effort, Cuchumuela is about to achieve its goals of full coverage in water supply. Sanitation is understandably lagging—expansion is slower even with communities and organizations that value sanitation. Our monitoring work showed that early efforts focused on building latrines with subsidies were ineffective and actually undermined sanitation development. So we (government, communities, local partners and Water For People) needed to rethink our sanitation program. New approaches are now being applied.

Seventy-seven percent of the area is metered so water wastage is being controlled. Communities not only paid for their water systems up-front (in cash) but also pay tariffs to ensure water keeps flowing. Bolivia is, in many ways, the darling of the anti-privatization movement, but nobody we work with thinks water should be free—a common mistake made by anti-privatization advocates. Government and communities pay, taking control of their water supplies and their futures. They aren’t expecting, and aren’t looking for, a handout.

Because of this, the government and local communities are rightly getting the credit for tackling water poverty in Cuchumuela. They are actively addressing their problems, not waiting for aid allocations from some distant foreign government. They are not sitting on their hands and waiting for someone to give them their water rights. They’re taking responsibility, together, to meet the challenges.

As a result, downtimes are reduced so water is flowing, and tariffs are designed to eventually allow for the replacement of their systems, hopefully eliminating the need for any support from external agencies in the future. We have evidence of new households being connected to the water supply without any additional financial support from Water For People (combinations of family contributions and funds from tariffs managed by communities). Water extensions, as villages grow without additional support from us, is a major goal.

Bolivia is not alone and this should be celebrated. We have seen many local governments step up and assume their rightful responsibilities to the communities they represent. In South 24 Parganas, West Bengal, India, the government is now paying close to 75 percent of hardware costs for all projects financed in their district. They are also covering 51 percent of the training costs, and are committed to lasting results and a reduction in system failure. The government of Rwanda is a leader in this field as well, making considerable financial commitments to an ambitious district-wide program in Rulindo. Honduras and Guatemala are driving toward full coverage in a number of municipalities and financing significant parts of these investments. And communities worldwide are playing their part as well, with significant up-front payments for their water supplies and latrines.

The UN resolution will mean little if water stops flowing and latrines are abandoned, as is now the case. It will be transformative only if lasting impact moves from being a rhetorical catchphrase (and worse, a programmatic afterthought) to being at the forefront of water and sanitation sector programming in the future. It will become a reality when examples of co-financing and creative programming, like the examples provided above, become the norm worldwide. And it will really scale up when space is created for communities to not only demand that their rights to water and sanitation are met, but also call out sector role players who have come in and installed systems that fail, as is too often the case now. Together we can help usher in a new era of transparency and accountability around rights that (hopefully) will lead to better work and better results on the ground…and an MDG goal that doesn’t stop at 2015.


  1. IIED Briefing, March 2009.
  2. IRC Source Bulletin, 56, May 2009

About the author
Edward D. ‘Ned’ Breslin joined Water For People as its Director of International Programs in January 2006 and was appointed Acting CEO in late 2008. He became Chief Executive Officer in May 2009. Breslin was first introduced to the challenges of water supply when living in the Chalbi Desert of northern Kenya in 1987, linked to a Lutheran World Relief program through St. Lawrence University. He subsequently worked for a range of local and international water and sanitation sector NGOs in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, including positions at the Mvula Trust and as Country Representative for WaterAid in Mozambique, before joining Water For People.

About the organization
Founded in 1991, Water For People is an international, nonprofit humanitarian organization that focuses on long-lasting, safe drinking water resources and improved sanitation facilities in the developing world. In its 20th year, the organization focuses not on creating a dependency on charity in the 11 countries it works in, but rather strengthening the ability of the local community to plan, build, finance, maintain and operate their own systems. Water For People works in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America to show that its successful programs are adaptable around the world and can be replicated any- where. It is a charity of choice of the American water and wastewater community. For more information, visit


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