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 Report - World Water Day: Governments need to deliver water as a human right (IFRC)

 Report date: 02.04.2003

Geneva, 21 March 2003


"For the first time ever, World Water Day (March 22) is being marked this year with the knowledge that there is now a world-wide realization that water is a human right. Human dignity is not possible without access to clean water," said Didier Cherpitel, secretary general of the International Federation.

Uli Jaspers, the head of the Federation delegation attending the World Water Forum, which closes in Kyoto, Japan, this weekend, said that the Forum needed to signal to the world that governments are going to be held more accountable on the provision of clean drinking water to the 1.1 billion people who do not have access to it.

"Too little progress is being made in delivering water and decent sanitation to poor households. It is hard to believe that in the 21st century 2.4 billion people do not have access to a safe latrine. If the World Water Forum is to achieve anything then it must persuade the 145 countries who have signed up to water as a human right to take all reasonable steps to improve access to clean water," said Jaspers.

The International Federation's water and sanitation co-coordinators from around the world are also meeting in Kyoto this weekend to discuss how the Federation's 178 member National Societies can support implementation of the UN's recent acceptance of water as a human right.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recently stated "the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses." The 145 countries that are signatories to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are required to "move as expeditiously and effectively as possible towards the full realization of the right to water."

"This encourages us all, particularly humanitarian organizations, to partner with governments to ensure that they can deliver against this commitment particularly to vulnerable populations. The Federation itself will then be able to achieve more in this area where we are already delivering 20 million litres of water per day to some one million people around the world," said Jaspers.

For further information, or to set up interviews (ISDN line available in Geneva), please contact:
Denis McClean, Head, Media Service Tel: + 41 22 730 44 28 / + 41 79 217 33 57
Media Service Duty Phone Tel: + 41 79 416 38 81

The Federation, the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross together constitute the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. For further information on Federation activities, please see our web site:

P.O. Box 372 372, 1211 Geneva 19, Switzerland
Telephone +41 22 730 42 22 - Telefax +41 22 733 03 95 - E-mail: - Web site:



Kyoto, Japan - Clean drinking water is a commodity that many of us take for granted. We turn on the tap and wash, open a bottle and drink. But by the middle of this century, up to seven billion people might have neither clean water for drinking, cooking and washing, nor basic sewage. Last November, with the input and wholehearted support of the Red Cross Red Crescent, a first step was taken to avoid that appalling scenario when the United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights declared access to water a basic human right.

We should be clear - the health of millions is under daily threat. Polluted water used for drinking and cooking is the main cause of a catalogue of diseases, including diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, dengue fever and malaria. In 2002, 1.6 million young children died of diarrhoea, one of the most easily prevented diseases.

In the Pakistani city of Karachi, three million people live without piped drinking water. In the slums of Dhaka, in Bangladesh, 70 per cent of people have no sewage system, while in the Kibera shantytown of Nairobi, Kenya, up to 200 people have to share one pit latrine.

The problems are equally dramatic in rural areas, where there is often a total absence of water or sewage facilities. Natural disasters such as the hurricanes and typhoons that affect the Caribbean or South Asia, and the droughts that ravage Africa and Central Asia only serve to make the problem worse.

In the former Soviet Union, where water used to be distributed practically free of charge, the situation has changed drastically since independence. Most of the problems are of a long-term structural nature: crumbling infrastructure; inadequate funding for the maintenance or replacement of existing water delivery systems and sewage facilities; the exodus of qualified technical specialists.

When a civil war and its aftermath are added to this already dismal state of affairs, the situation can be catastrophic. Conflict can lead not only to a breakdown in civil infrastructure, sometimes with water and sewage treatment works targeted, but also results in the displacement of populations.

Refugees and other displaced populations have to deal with not only the loss of their land, valuables and family members, but also have to find access to water within hours, often in hostile or isolated locations. The international community has a duty to help such vulnerable people to remain free of water-borne ailments. The Red Cross Red Crescent plays its part - ICRC has been active in Iraq since 1980 carrying out a wide range of activities including the upkeep and repair of water and sanitation infrastructure.

In another conflict-affected country, Tajikistan, the local Red Crescent had helped rebuild irrigation systems and developed bore holes. The Tajik government was a vocal advocate in favour of declaring this year the International Year of Fresh Water.

National governments and international organizations spend large amounts of money on drugs, facilities and personnel in an effort to cure diseases caused by drinking unsuitable water and using inadequate or improper sanitation facilities.

In many cases, however, the poor health situation could be improved or even completely avoided at a much lower cost if these funds were better spent on disease prevention. Provision of clean drinking water and proper sanitation facilities, combined with public health education campaigns, is the most effective way of battling water-borne diseases.

The Red Cross Red Crescent recognises this, and has made water and sanitation a central element in its response to virtually every disaster. Every day, it supplies 20 million litres of safe water to vulnerable communities. Over the past 20 years, 1.5 million Nepalese villagers in 18 regions have benefited from Red Cross water and sanitation programmes, resulting in a fall in water-borne diseases. Worldwide, specialised Water and Sanitation Emergency Response Units have been deployed in 18 major disasters in recent years.

But still, wherever there is poverty, there is water-related disease. Often, clean drinking water is available only at prohibitive costs, meaning people have to get water from risky sources. The illnesses that result block their ability to find employment or carry out the simplest domestic chores - such as finding and bringing home water.

Children and women are the main family providers and users of water, especially in rural areas. Sometimes they spend several hours a day walking and carrying water from the available sources. A readily available supply of clean water would improve their quality of life, freeing up more time for children to attend school or for parents to tend their fields.

Lack of safe water strips people of their dignity - what could be more threatening to well-being than knowing that the water you rely on to quench a thirst or to cook your food could kill you and your children? Human dignity is a central concern to the Federation, and is an overarching theme for the forthcoming International Red Cross Red Crescent Conference to be held in Geneva in December.

Through the Millennium Development Goals, countries around the world have committed themselves to halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe water. But past declarations - such as the 1980 UNICEF-led initiative to provide safe supply of drinking water and sanitation to everyone within 10 years, and a similar initiative proclaimed at the 1990 World Summit for Children - clearly failed to reach their objective.

The Third World Water Forum in Kyoto is the most important meeting ever devoted to this issue. The International Federation believes it imperative that national governments and international organizations accelerate their efforts and increase funding for water and sanitation activities worldwide.

* Tadateru Konoe is a Vice-President of the Japanese Red Cross Society and a member of the International Federation Governing Board. He is heading the Federation's delegation to the World Water Forum in Kyoto.

The Geneva-based International Federation promotes the humanitarian activities of 178 National
Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies among vulnerable people. By coordinating international disaster relief and encouraging development support, it seeks to prevent and alleviate human suffering.
The Federation, National Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross together,
constitute the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

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