The AGUASAN workshop this year (13th May 2019) was based on the topic of human rights to water and sanitation, and it was structured around supporting a range of small water, sanitation and hygiene entrepreneurs to help them to reach the people that are being left behind. Selling water and sanitation to the poorest of the poor does not sound like an attractive proposition from an economic perspective, but there are ways of constructing business models that can be inclusive, enabling access to the vulnerable, and ensuring that there is a sensible return. Does this sound like an incongruity?
Using the WaterLex checklist for small water and sanitation entrepreneurs, the workshop identified a range of ideas that can be used to help small suppliers to think about human rights. For example, is everyone able to afford your services, and if not, how can the price be subsidised, or otherwise reduced for some people? The human right to water is not just about making sure that drinking water is available – it also needs to be a good quality, affordable relative to other goods, and accessible for the disabled, the elderly and on a regular basis. When the government is relying on the private sector to supply these essential services, there clearly needs to be a strong governance framework that ensures that standards are kept, and that suppliers are able to supply the whole population, and not only the ones that can really afford it.
When sanitation services are supplied, they are available ideally to each household, and the waste is safely treated without contamination of water sources. Consideration of the minutiae of how to make these services work for all people involves consideration of cultural needs, costs, environmental factors, and gender sensitive approaches. It is not always obvious, and it is not necessarily easy for small service providers to achieve.
Hence, the government is always needed to take its duty as protector of human rights seriously. It does not exclude the involvement of the private sector, but it does mean that laws, policies and regulations need to uphold basic rights, and that these laws also need to be controlled. Certainly, the private sector can provide access to standards and certifications, but in the absence of an enforced legal framework, these human rights can easily be overlooked.
For governments seeking to realise sustainable Development Goal 6 on water and sanitation, more needs to be done to attract the private sector to fill many of the gaps in a timely manner. However, this does not give governments a licence to walk away from their responsibilities, and the inclusion of the human rights to water and sanitation in a strong legal framework is an essential starting point.