By David Snow | WaterLex |

“No one should be invisible. No one should be left behind.” These were among the opening comments from Jane Connors, director of the Research and Right to Development Division of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the WaterLex conference and workshop on measurement indicators for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) on Friday in Geneva, Switzerland. In noting the power of data, she said that “good measurement is the foundation of accountability,” while bad measurement can undermine it.

Organised by WaterLex and planned in partnership with the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the Stockholm International Water Institute, the two-day meeting and workshop took place Friday and Saturday, 21-22 Nov. It examined the “indicators,” or emerging norms and standards used to measure progress on the implementation of the human right to water and sanitation (HRWS), particularly among disempowered or vulnerable populations.

The HRWS has been established since 2010, when its resolution was adopted by the UN, but how do experts and interested parties agree on ways to measure how well it is — or is not — being realised? Building upon previous work on indicators, conducted by UN agencies and others to establish accurate and consistent measurement, is crucial in gaining ground in the world water crisis. According to UN figures, 748 million people lack access to safe drinking water and about 2.3 billion lack access to adequate sanitation.

From left, Jane Connors (OHCHR), Prof. Eibe Riedel (Univ. of Mannheim, Germany, and WaterLex president), and Jan van de Venis (WaterLex Legal Desk director and the event's master of ceremonies).

From left, Jane Connors (OHCHR), Prof. Eibe Riedel (Univ. of Mannheim, Germany, and WaterLex board president), and Jan van de Venis (WaterLex Legal Desk director and the event’s master of ceremonies).

“When you use indicators, the danger for committees, state parties and NGOs is that you get so many, you get lost in the details. But it’s wonderful for academics. They can have a field day on it,” quipped Prof. Eibe Riedel in his opening remarks, drawing a laugh. As one of the authors of UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) General Comment no. 15 on the human right to water (2002), Riedel, president of the WaterLex Board of Directors,  is a prominent academic working in the subject area.

“The purpose is not indicators, the purpose is good measures by government in seeking to realise people’s human rights,” he added.

Background on specific goals of the conference: General Comment no. 15 calls on states to adopt a national water strategy and action plan. As envisioned, these steps should be regularly reviewed and should include methods, such as right-to-water indicators and benchmarks, to monitor progress. As such, the “table of contents” of a national action plan should include relevant indicators and benchmarks. Therefore, conference planners reasoned, it would be of great value to clarify the elements of such a table of contents.

The conference and workshop, supported by the Swiss Development Corporation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), brought about 40 legal specialists and water-and-sanitation field practitioners together, plus 16 speakers, to focus on developing a common agenda to ensure agreement on the issue as a step forward.

Discussions at the event were fed, in part, by a WaterLex draft discussion paper (see below). The paper, written by WaterLex Operations Director Dr. Tobias Schmitz, will be further developed from inputs at the event and from experts not present. After peer review, it will be further distributed.

Day one of the event focused on experts presentations on diverse topics related to WASH indicators and the HRWS, followed by open-discussion periods. Kicked off by Connors of OHCHR and Prof. Riedel, the event’s roll call of speakers included noted experts from several UN agencies, as well as national human rights institutes, universities, and NGOs. Day two featured an extended “breakout session,” where participants and speakers collaborated closely, generating inputs on impressions of the most important indicators and next steps toward their recognition and use, which will be included in the next edition of the discussion paper.

Links to presentations, videos, and notes will be added here when possible and by permission from the authors.

See photos from the event

Read the draft article for discussion at the event

See the full programme

Presentations, added as they become available:

Introduction of WaterLex and the Event – Jan van de Venis, WaterLex Legal Desk director and the event’s master of ceremonies

Indicators on the Rights to Water and Sanitation Grace Sanico Steffan, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

The Right to Participate: From Principles to Practice Alice Bouman-Dentener, honorary founding president, Women for Water Partnership

Measuring the Right to Water and Sanitation Dr. Malcolm Langford, senior researcher, Chr. Michelsen Institute (video)

Public Participation to Ensure Access to Water and Sanitation for All – Building on the Aarhus Convention and the Protocol on Water and HealthChantal Demilecamps and Fiona Marshall, UNECE environmental affairs officers

Role of Social Dialogue in Local GovernmentCarlos Carrión Crespo, International Labour Office, Geneva, International Labour Organisation (ILO)

Investment, Trade in Services and the Right to Water and Sanitation: Ensuring Coherence – Susan Mathews, OHCHR

For more information:

WaterLex International Secretariat
Tel: +41 22 907 36 46
Email: info (at)

About WaterLex:

WaterLex is an international public interest development organization and membership association based in Geneva, Switzerland. It is a UN-Water Partner with UN ECOSOC special consultative status. Its mission is to develop sustainable solutions based on human rights to improve water governance worldwide, particularly in regard to consistent water law and policy frameworks. It works with an alliance of interested parties to improve water-governance frameworks, bringing them in line with country obligations under international human rights law. The interested parties are individuals and groups working in government (diplomatic missions), academia (professors of law, researchers), bilateral cooperation (water management advisors), the judiciary (high/supreme courts judges), the UN system (UN-Water family members), and civil society (NGOs that work on water issues). WaterLex works in partnership with 13 universities to continuously enrich the content of the WaterLex Legal Database. The organisation is funded by grants and project financing from public agencies, foundations, private gifts, and in-kind contributions. Established in 2010, when the human right to water was recognised by the UN, the organisation has a secretariat in Geneva with 11 staff members, a supervisory board of directors, and a large pool of members and expert advisors. It is an official partner of the Global Water Partnership, UNDP Cap-Net, UNDP GWS, UNEP Global Wastewater Initiative, and UNECE, and a member of the board of the Swiss Water Partnership.