Catarina de Albuquerque, former UN special rapporteur, on getting water recognised as a human right and why involving the private sector is a no-brainer
The first time Catarina de Albuquerque made a presentation at World Water Week, people did not like what she had to say. It was 2009, she was just a year into her role as UN special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and delegates did not like her suggestion that people should pay for water.
“They were hoping I was going to say that as water is a human right, it should be free and the private sector should not be involved,” says de Albuquerque. She made her presentation, saying that water should be affordable, and the floor opened for questions.
“That’s when the disaster started,” says de Albuquerque. “I think the NGOs were in shock. They were saying: ‘How can you say that water can have a price? You cannot sell human rights.’”
Water can have a price as long as people are not excluded, responded de Albuquerque, and drew parallels with other human rights. There is a right to food, for example, but people will still pay for it in a supermarket. The same goes for health; it’s a recognised human right, but medicines still come with a price.
These days, de Albuquerque feels more at ease in the sector. In November 2014, she was appointed executive director of Sanitation and Water for All (SWA), a global partnership working to strengthen political leadership to increase access to water and sanitation. The sector seems to have warmed to her too; earlier this month she received the Global Water Award at the IWA World Water Congress, in recognition of the role she has played as “the driving force behind the recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation”.
Global water crises are the biggest threat the planet will face over the next decade, according to the World Economic Forum. But the complexity of this problem makes water a particularly knotty issue. On one hand we face rapidly worsening shortages of freshwater – Nasa satellite data shows that freshwater from 21 of the world’s largest 37 aquifers is being withdrawn faster than it can be replenished. On the other, out of a global population of 7 billion, 663 million people still lack access to water and 2.4 billion live without a toilet. The competing demands for finite water resources are so great that in April, a high-level panel of 11 heads of state was convened to help meet the sustainable development goal (SDG) on water.
The involvement of the private sector, however, still divides water and sanitation professionals. Some see it as a necessary means to bridge the gaps in funding and implementation, while others are concerned that profit-making organisations will exclude the poorest from essential services.
In a former life, de Albuquerque was a “simple human rights lawyer” working in her home country of Portugal. When she heard about the role of special rapporteur she simply applied “with no specific expertise in water and sanitation issues”, and despite being warned against it.
“Friends of mine at the UN told me: ‘Oh, don’t apply for the water mandate. It’s new, it’s weak, the right has not even been recognised.’” But de Albuquerque is not one to fear a challenge. “I thought that was even more interesting. I could make the mandate bigger, stronger, richer and ensure that the rights were recognised,” says de Albuquerque.
When de Albuquerque came to the end of her second and final term as special rapporteur in December 2014, the right had been recognised, she had the biggest budget of all other special rapporteurs – “I like to ask for money” – and she was undertaking missions and taking complaints from those whose right had been violated – something some states objected to when she began.
Today, de Albuquerque advocates for the political prioritisation of water, sanitation and hygiene on a global level, and establishes strategic partnerships with other initiatives and sectors.
There are 52 country partners of SWA at present, and the nature of democracy means that de Albuquerque’s work is never done. “Just when we manage to convince one set of ministers to prioritise water and sanitation, there are elections – which is a good thing – and we have to convince and work with the next ministers. It’s never-ending work, a never-ending story.”
Now, at least, there is an end goal in sight. As special rapporteur, de Albuquerque pushed for the inclusion of human rights language in the SDGs, and for a specific goal for water and sanitation. All in all, she is “super satisfied” when it comes to goal six, which sets a target of ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
She is also pleased that the human right to water and sanitation is one of only two recognised human rights to be mentioned specifically in the 2030 agenda. “There is one place where the human right can be useful,” she says. “Quality, accessibility, and the elimination of equalities are reflected. Affordability? That’s the problem. Affordability for water is referred to but not affordability for sanitation. My argument is that because we refer to human rights in the declaration, we have to also fight for affordability for sanitation, even though it’s not explicitly mentioned.”
The tricky crossroads between the human right to water and sanitation, pricing, and the involvement of businesses seem like something de Albuquerque will be grappling with for the lifetime of the goal.
“Water is life, it’s what we all say. Is it because it’s so essential and so close to us? Is it because of the religious and cultural symbolism around water? Is that why everything around water is so passionate and engages people – in sometimes irrational ways?” she says. “There are these misunderstandings around water and the fact that you can put a price on it. I think these were impediments to recognising it as a human right.”
But the involvement of the private sector in realising the water goal is something of a no-brainer for de Albuquerque: “For business, isn’t it better to push for better standards? If the MDGs [millennium development goals] called for a 50% reduction of those without access, and the UN human right and the SDG say ‘for all’, well then you double the number of clients,” she says. “Are we now at the point where there are zero problems? No, but I think there is a true effort to think about things differently and mainstream human rights.”
This article first appeared on the Guardian on 20 October 2016.