Water’s new development path

It still surprises people outside of the water sector when they find out that the human rights to water and sanitation (HRWS) were explicitly recognised by the United Nations General Assembly only in 2010. One would think that a human necessity as basic as access to water would have been among the first to be explicitly enshrined in international law.

As we in the water profession know, the sticky point was never about necessity. Rather, it was the scope of and content of the rights that would be enshirned in the UN’s Resolution. Questions about implementation, feasibility, and capacity still make HRWS a very difficult political agenda to realise, not just with national governments, but also further down at local government level.

At first glance, this offers a bleak outlook: how can we hope to progress significantly if we took such a long time to recognize something as fundamental as the right to water and sanitation?

I prefer to look at the bright side. What this means is that we, as a global human collective, have overcome the toughest hurdle: building consensus. We have finally agreed on our common goals, common measures of success, and common standards of decent living. With this behind us, it is time to step up the work.

We have seen progress in many countries around the world already, and that makes me optimistic, particularly as the international adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals supports the attainment of the HRWS. As a public-private partnerships (PPP) practitioner in the Philippine water sector, I anticipate that public authorities will progressively incorporate HRWS principles.

For example, authorities could mandate the inclusion of programs to provide water access in rural areas. Historically, traditional water infrastructure avoided remote areas because it did not make economic sense to make sizeable investments in return for thin, slow returns. A change in regulation, following HRWS principles, could allow authorities to penalize utilities that withhold investments in rural systems. This will result in utilities pursuing more technological and social innovations, such as off-grid and decentralised water systems. My company is testing a rural “waterpreneurship” model to this effect. This is a good example of the far-reaching impact of HRWS: from the UN podium all the way to the barangays of rural Philippines.

The explicit recognition of HRWS also means that people are now empowered to demand water and sanitation, and to raise their voice against violations to their inalienable rights. In many areas of the developing world, entire communities have no access to water because authorities either deny it or postpone action. There are several reasons for this outright denial: it could be discrimination, political pressure, gross negligence, or the wrong notion that these people can make do with their current situation. None of these, according to the UN’s declaration, are justifiable reasons.

HRWS as well as the Sustainable Development Goals also emphasize the equal importance of the right to sanitation. With more than a third of the world’s population lacking access to basic sanitation services, we have our work cut out for us.

This year, the International Water Association’s biennial conference Water and Development Congress & Exhbition is focused on “Sustainable solutions for emerging economies”. The challenges faced by emerging economies today are vastly different – and perhaps more difficult – than those who have advanced before them. While sustainability is everyone’s business, the onus is on emerging economies to trailblaze a new path towards development that is more inclusive, progressive, and sustainable.



Yang is a keynote speaker at the Water and Development Congress & Exhibition, and involved in the organization of the Emerging Water Leaders Forum on 16 November.


The Manual on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation for Practitioners in Portuguese will be launched at the Congress. The Manual introduces a human rights perspective that will aid informed decision making in the daily routine of water and sanitation operators, managers and regulators. The Manual will be launched by Leo Heller (UN Rapporteur), Robert Bos (IWA and lead author), Ana Albuquerque, ERSAR (Portugal) and Kala Vairavamoorthy (IWA) and Diane D’arras (IWA President). Chaired by Carolina Latorre (IWA).


The 5th Water and Development Congress & Exhibition will be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 13-17 November 2017. Leaders from a multi-disciplinary background will share their views on key issues faced by emerging economies, and will deliver thought-provoking solutions. The conference will also feature technical sessions and workshops on topics relevant to water-wise and sustainable development.


Yang G. Villa

Head of the Philippines for the Isle Utilities - Career-building role at IWA YWP Steering Committee
Yang has been working in the water sector for 13 years as a business developer. He is the co-founder of the IWA YWP chapter in the Philippines and was the Conference President for the 10th IWA Specialist Conference on Efficient Urban Water Management... Read full biography