Advancing the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation under International Law: Human rights vs. investor rights.

AuthorLark, David

Reading Time: 7 minutes

While international mechanisms are increasingly recognizing the human rights to water and sanitation, states must take action too.

Concerns about the human rights to water and sanitation (HRWS) under international law have gained increasing attention in recent years. In Canada, ongoing water advisories within Indigenous communities prompted a 2014 Human Rights Watch report. The report admonished the Canadian government for being "in violation of a range of international human rights obligations toward First Nations peoples and communities". In response, the federal Liberal Party's 2015 campaign promised to end these advisories by the end of March 2021. A recent report by the Auditor General Karen Hogan acknowledged the government's failure to meet this promise. Ms. Hogan stated she was 'very concerned and honestly disheartened that this longstanding issue is still not resolved'.

South of the border, a water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan also garnered international attention in 2014. UN experts commented that the ongoing crisis in Flint 'illustrates the suffering and difficulties that flow from failing to recognize that water is a human right'. The same experts noted the intersection of the HRWS with the advancement of other human rights. As recent evidence shows, abuses to the HRWS disproportionately impact the most vulnerable and marginalized communities, even in the world's most 'developed' countries.

Globally, the lack of access to clean water and sanitation is an equally troubling concern. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that "1 in 3 people globally do not have access to safe drinking water". The report notes that, as of 2019, 2.2 billion people do not have access to safely managed drinking water services, and 4.2 billion do not have access to safely managed sanitation services. The WHO further emphasized the added challenges of "[c]limate change, increasing water scarcity, population growth, demographic changes and urbanization" and remarked that "[b]y 2025, half of the world's population will be living in water-stressed areas".

Clearly the need to advance the HRWS is of ongoing and immediate importance. As discussed below, formal mechanisms of international law (such as international conventions) are increasingly recognizing the HRWS. However, at the same time, countries have legal obligations found within international trade and investment agreements. This article cautions that a...

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