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31 January 2018

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Towards Equitable Access to Water and Sanitation
31 January 2018
Revolve |

water Feature by RevolveTeam

The UNECE - WHO Regional Office for Europe Protocol on Water and Health is advancing national, regional and global commitments to achieve equitable access to water and sanitation for all. Everyone has the right to water and sanitation!

The recognition of access to water and to sanitation as human rights, derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, by the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council in 2010, confirmed the obligation of governments to ensure that water and sanitation services are available, physically accessible, of good quality and safe, acceptable in terms of dignity and privacy and affordable for all without discrimination. Governments therefore have to take concrete steps towards ensuring access to safe water and sanitation for all. Some components of the right to water and sanitation are deemed subject to progressive realization, but obligations such as that of non-discrimination are of immediate effect.

Equity considerations are very strong in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In particular, the Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) on water and sanitation sets ambitious targets in this respect:

  • Target 6.1. By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

  • Target 6.2. By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.

Countries from the Mediterranean region reaffirmed, in the 2017 Ministerial Declaration of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) Water Ministers on the UfM Water Agenda, their “willingness to undertake the necessary efforts ensuring access to safe drinking water as a fundamental human right, particularly for the most vulnerable.” (see UfM Water Agenda pages 40-41.)

In the pan-European region, the Parties to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) – World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe (WHO Regional Office for Europe) Protocol on Water and Health have committed to ensure equitable access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation through accession to or ratification of the Protocol. Indeed, the Protocol requires its Parties to ensure access to water and sanitation for everyone and specifically to promote equitable access to water and sanitation “for all members of the population, especially those who suffer a disadvantage or social exclusion.”

The UNECE – WHO Regional Office for Europe Protocol on Water and Health

As a powerful tool to promote and operationalize equitable access to water and sanitation in the pan-European region, the Protocol provides a sound framework for the translation of these commitments into practice, particularly with the obligation to set targets and target dates, through the participatory approach called for and thanks to the monitoring systems and compliance review procedures established under its framework.

Since 2011, the Protocol has developed several important tools and supported a number of activities to provide support to countries to improve equitable access to water and sanitation. The publication No One Left Behind: Good practices to ensure equitable access to water and sanitation in the pan-European region  presents good practices and lessons learned from the pan-European region on the policies and measures to be enacted to provide equitable access.

An analytic tool, the Equitable Access Score-card supports governments and other stakeholders to establish a baseline measure of the equity of access through a self-assessment process, identify priorities and discuss further actions to be taken to address equity gaps. It has already been applied in nine countries of the pan-European region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, France – Paris Greater Area, Hungary, Republic of Moldova, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – 3 regions, Portugal, Spain – Municipality of Castelló and Ukraine) and is currently being applied in Bulgaria and Serbia.

The Guidance Note on the Development of Action Plans to Ensure Equitable Access to Water and Sanitation, so far used in two countries (Armenia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) helps governments to take a structured approach to the identification and implementation of actions to ensure equitable access to water and sanitation.

Ensuring Equitable Access to Water and Sanitation

Governments have to take concrete steps towards ensuring access to safe water and sanitation for all.

The outcomes of equitable access assessments carried out in the nine countries have highlighted four main challenges of ensuring equitable access.

The degradation of the quality of water resources means that many towns and villages that rely on local water sources do not have access to safe water, while water scarcity can deprive some towns and villages of access altogether. For example in Ukraine, improper water quality remains one of the key issues faced, specifically in rural areas.

Rural areas in the pan-European region have significantly lower levels of access to water and sanitation services than urban areas and may face higher tariffs. For example in Armenia, the assessment showed that 579 rural communities were not serviced by water companies and were not provided with centralized water supply services.

People belonging to vulnerable or marginalized groups do not enjoy the same levels of access to water and sanitation as the rest of society. The situation differs across groups, such as persons with specific physical needs, those who rely on public facilities, users of institutional facilities, or those living in unsanitary housing. For example in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the assessment pointed out the challenges faced by the Roma population living in the capital Skopje: only 26% have access to water and only 16% have toilets and a bathroom at their living place, while most of them have to use toilets outside of their homes.

Affordability is a growing concern for all countries. For the poorest countries, either a large part of the population already devotes an important share of their income to pay for water and sanitation services, or they will likely be facing this situation soon as tariffs increase to ensure financial sustainability. In European Union countries, more stringent water quality objectives and progress towards full cost recovery also means that paying for water and sanitation services has become a real concern for lower income families. For example in the Republic of Moldova, the water and sanitation access gap difference between the richest and the poorest quintile of the population continue to increase with years.

Different assessments show that current water governance frameworks are often “equity blind”. The roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders and institutions in ensuring equitable access to water and sanitation are often not clearly identified and allocated. For example, water operators need to be more responsive to delivering equitable access and local government and civil society organizations need to play a greater role. The identification of different vulnerable and marginalized groups is a challenge, data on their access to services is often missing and the participation of members of these groups in decision-making processes constitutes a real challenge.

Informal settlement without access to services, Serbia.

Wealthy neighborhood, Chisinau, Republic of Moldova.

Addressing the Water and Sanitation Equity Gap

Vulnerable or marginalized groups do not enjoy the same levels of access to water and sanitation as the rest of society.

Such assessments have helped countries to get a clearer understanding of the gaps in access to water and sanitation and this helped them in turn to translate the priorities identified into actions to address the equity gaps and in financing the necessary measures to advance towards universal access.

Based on the outcomes of such assessments, as well as in line with the countries obligations to guarantee the human rights to water and sanitation, several countries have taken concrete measures to improve the equity of access. Types of measures vary from the analysis and evaluation of existing plans, policies and programmes, legal and institutional reforms, targeted investments, capacity-building initiatives to enhance the understanding of the importance of equitable access by staff in relevant ministries, agencies and utilities.

For example, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Regional Health Centres coordinated by the National Health Centre, with the support of local and national civil society organizations have promoted the findings of the assessment, contributing to awareness with local people and decision-makers about the main access gaps faced and creating a “mood for change”. Local action plans have been prepared through participatory processes in three municipalities. Concrete improvements, such as the renovation of toilets in schools and the construction of public toilets, have started.

In Portugal, the assessment has contributed to filling information gaps. The main findings have been considered in the revision of the strategic plan for water supply and sanitation of the national regulator (ERSAR). ERSAR has also carried more work on affordibility, introducing a set of Indicators including an “affordability indicator” for each operator in their annual report for the water, sanitation and waste services. It has also contributed to improvements of laws and legislation, with regulations being prepared to establish conditions for the social tariffs.

In Armenia, following the official adoption of a National Equitable Access Action Plan by order of the State Committee on Water Economy, several actions have been carried out: an in-depth evaluation provided detailed information on the problems faced by the 579 rural communities not serviced by the centralized water companies. On that basis, water operators are currently addressing this issue.

Experience shows that countries face difficulties in apprehending the actual situation of access to water and sanitation in terms of equity. Collecting information through assessments can help countries to get a clear understanding of the gaps in equitable access to water and sanitation and therefore to define and finance measures to advance towards universal access. Countries working under the framework of the Protocol have shown concrete progress in progressively improving equitable access. While this process requires time and continuous efforts, it is key to sustainable and inclusive development.

Informal settlement without access to services, Serbia.

Drawing water from the well, Armenia.