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Climate Change, Water, and Human Rights


General context

Climate variations and climate change are threatening fundamental human rights, such as the rights to water and sanitation; but also the rights to life, health, water, food, housing, and to an adequate standard of living. The increasing phenomena related to climate extremes (drought or flooding), and of water-related crises, may generally threaten water/food security and furthermore increase the risk of conflicts and epidemics (IPCC, 2014).

The realization of the human rights to water and sanitation can therefore help overcome some of the challenges, by improving wastewater and water management as a component of adaptation and mitigation strategies to climate change.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC)

In 2015, the UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris highlighted the importance of human rights:

© Srimanta Ray, with courtesy of Photoshare

Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity (Paris agreement).

During the COP 21, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, reminded that “States’ human rights obligations also encompass climate change.” UN agencies, national government and private sectors have therefore procedural and substantive obligations to respond to violation of human rights as a result of climate change (UNEP 2015).

A broad coalition of nations, river basin organizations, business and civil society further announced the creation of the international Paris Pact on Water and Climate Change Adaptation to make water systems more resilient to climate impacts. This initiative is designed to make countries mobilize their own basin organizations, to strengthen their anticipations and their adaptation actions. Countries need to strengthen capacity, adapt basin management planning to climate change, reinforce governance, and ensure adequate financing.

At COP 22 in Marrakech in 2016, the Paris Committee on Capacity-building (PCCB) was invited to manage the 2016-2020 workplan and take into consideration cross-cutting issues such as gender responsiveness, human rights and indigenous peoples’ knowledge; and encourage Parties to integrate local and traditional knowledge in the formulation of climate policy and to recognize the value of the participation of grassroots women in gender-responsive climate action at all levels (Gender and Climate Change).

Climate change and the human rights to water and sanitation

© Kingshuk Chakravarty, with courtesy of Photoshare

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), climate change presents a serious obstacle to the realisation of the rights to water and sanitation: Water is a key medium through which climate change impacts upon human populations and ecosystems, particularly due to predicted changes in water quality and quantity. The impacts of climate change need to be seen in light of its direct effects on water resources as well as its indirect influence on other external drivers of change, in particular increasing population pressures and changing consumption patterns (OHCHR, 2009).

Consequently, improved water resource management should be a central component of climate change adaptation strategies. It will also be a vital consideration for many mitigation activities, including hydropower, agriculture and forestry projects. States and other duty-bearers (including businesses) have the obligation and responsibility to foster policy coherence and help ensure that climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts are adequate, sufficiently ambitious, non-discriminatory and compliant with human rights obligations (OHCHR’s Key Messages on Human Rights and Climate Change).