Rallying stakeholders for progressive realization of the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Read this story in Portuguese

The United  Nations General Assembly (UNGA) recognized access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right in 2010; in 2015 it specified a distinction between the human right to safe drinking water and the human right to sanitation.  Implicit in this decision is recognition of the importance of services providing drinking water supply, sanitation and wastewater management. These services are the instruments for the progressive realization of these rights with a focus on reducing the existing equality gaps towards universal coverage.

At the global level, Portugal has been a vocal supporter of the processes leading to these decisions, and it has been involved in international initiatives to promote progressive realization and monitoring of these rights. The UNGA’s unanimous adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in 2015, reinforced the international community’s commitment to the rights. In fact, The UN Secretary-General’s report on the SDGs not only has strong overall human rights undertones, but it singles out the human rights to water and sanitation.

Today, the various water and sanitation actors in all countries have a responsibility to ensure that drinking water and sanitation are available and sustainably managed, without leaving anyone behind. This is at the heart of SDG6 on water and sanitation, supported by internationally agreed targets and indicators. It is critically important that all water and sanitation practitioners are aware that the scope of SDG6 covers the entire water cycle, including the integrated management of source water, the need to pursue water efficiency and the protection of ecosystem integrity to guarantee their essential products and services.

What are the practical implications of these rights for water, sanitation and wastewater operators?

The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation seem far removed from the daily lives of service providers, practitioners and regulators. Yet we all have to ask ourselves what we, as practitioners in the sector, can contribute to progressively realize these human rights?

These questions inspired a group of experts (including David Alves of ERSAR) from across the sector to develop the Manual on the Human Rights to Drinking Water and Sanitation for Practitioners, published by the International Water Association in October 2016. This Manual is now available in a Portuguese edition, which was prepared in collaboration with ERSAR, the Portuguese Water and Waste Services Regulation Authority.

The realization of these rights puts the obligation on governments to respect, protect and fulfill them, in accordance with human rights principles and criteria.   It does not mean, however, services should be free of charge, nor does it implies that service provision should be restricted to the public sector: the human rights do not express themselves on the service model. Progressive realization is a fundamental principle in the context of the economic, social and cultural rights covenant. It supports the pragmatic view that governments, local authorities, operators and regulators cannot be expected to meet the needs of all overnight. It reflects the idea that universal access will be achieved through incremental improvements; and that users must take into account the limitations of operators to deliver universal access to services.

Operators should demonstrate the progress made towards ensuring rights of all, both by expanding the service network to those who do not yet have access and by ensuring the sustainability and resilience of services for those who are already served. They should apply measures guaranteeing that those who have economic limitations are able to afford the services. They should implement principles and standards that apply equally to all users. Finally, they must do so in a way that supports economic development and the preservation of ecosystems.

Within the human rights and SDG frameworks, water sector regulators like ERSAR are responsible for guiding operators towards good practices, and monitoring the progressive realization of these rights by promoting the collection of information and making it publicly available.

The role of water services providers

The Manual on Human Rights for Drinking Water and Sanitation for Practitioners focuses on the role of water services providers and regulators. The human rights-based approach to water and sanitation introduces a set of principles and criteria some of which may traditionally not be at the center of their concerns, but which need to be respected and adhered to. The criteria are accessibility, availability, water quality and safety, affordability and acceptability.

This approach is fertile ground for concrete implementation measures by operators of water services. From this point of view, the success of the progressive realization of rights derives mostly from their integration into the management instruments of the operators, for example in operational plans that provide service levels compatible with these principles, criteria and objectives.

The translation into Portuguese of the Manual aims to make available a practical tool to promote the realization of rights amongst water, sanitation and wastewater management professionals in Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, Mozambique, Portugal and East Timor.

Portugal –A success story?

In Portugal, the principles underlying the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation are recognized in national legislation and in regulation, and have inspired the national public policy for the sector, in particular strategic plans. These plans, and the integrated approach that has been developed for their implementation, have led to very positive results.


ERSAR’s mission is to regulate and supervise the water supply and sanitation sectors in mainland Portugal. In the framework of this role, we will continue to promote universal access to good quality water services and to contribute to the need to respect, protect and fulfill human rights amongst all rights holders.

The Manual on Human Rights for Drinking Water and Sanitation for Practitioners can boost the implementation of good practices in Lusophone countries. It supports the sector not only globally, but it specifically presents an opportunity for these countries to pioneer the realization of these human rights in the coming years. We look forward to working with all stakeholders to reach that goal and we hope that this publication represents a first step for that purpose.


Join Launch of the Manual on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation for Practitioners in Portuguese

12:00 – 13:30
IWA stand


Documents and reports attached to this page

Orlando Borges and Ana Barreto Albuquerque

Orlando Borges is Chairman of the Board of Directors of ERSAR. Ana Barreto Albuquerque is Member of the Board of Directors of ERSAR. Read full biography