Rights-based Approaches

“Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right. Contaminated water jeopardizes both the physical and social health of all people. It is an affront to human dignity.” ~ Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General.

A rights-based approach is about improving wider systems of governance, which determine progress towards the vision of a world where everyone has access to safe water and sanitation. It implies a change in the power dynamics between those without access and the duty bearers. It aims to bring about sustainable and long term structural change in policies, procedures and laws, as well as changes in attitudes and behaviours.

This implies the following key components:

  1. Vulnerable groups: Development efforts should target/include vulnerable, disadvantaged or excluded groups and should pay attention to structural and indirect forms of vulnerability and discrimination in terms of public policies (or lack thereof), local power structures or cultural practices.
  2. Root causes: understand the reasons why people lack access to basic water and sanitation (political, economic, social, cultural, etc) not simply in terms of needs, but in terms of society’s obligation to respond to the rights of individuals.
  3. Rights holders and duty bearers: recognise beneficiaries as rights-holders and target their ability to claim their rights, while targeting duty-bearers’ ability to fulfil their obligations towards rights holders and to increase their accountability and responsiveness to all rights holders. Accountability is not only a concern for the outcome of development, but also for the process by which it is achieved and for the organisations implementing it.
  4. Empowerment: Work closely with those who do not have access to WASH to empower them to claim their rights to WASH, implying participatory approaches. Important to note herewith is that development should not only regard participation as a tool, but also as a goal for development. Platforms and networks: development should promote platforms and networks for mobilisations and support peoples ability to take part in governance and claim their rights individually and in groups.

Why does defining water as a human right make a difference?

Water for Life. Water and Sanitation as a Human Right.
Right to Water: Guayaquil, Ecuador

Ensuring that access to sufficient safe water is a human right constitutes an important step towards making it a reality for everyone. It means that:

  • fresh water is a legal entitlement, rather than a commodity or service provided on a charitable basis;
  • achieving basic and improved levels of access should be accelerated;
  • the “least served” are better targeted and therefore inequalities decreased;
  • communities and vulnerable groups will be empowered to take part in decision making processes;
  • the means and mechanisms available in the United Nations human rights system will be used to monitor the progress of States Parties in realizing the right to water and to hold governments accountable.


Rights-based approach to development

Approaching development from a rights perspective informs people of their legal rights and entitlements, and empowers them to achieve those rights. Rather than seeing people as passive recipients of aid, the rights-based approach puts the individual at the centre of development.

  • A rights-based approach has implications for a range of actors concerned directly or indirectly with water issues. Governments, as primary duty-bearers, must take concrete steps to respect, protect and fulfil the right to water and other water-related rights and to ensure that anyone operating within their jurisdiction - individuals, communities, civil society, and the private sector - do the same.This means paying attention to these rights also in processes, ensuring the right of beneficiaries to participate in decision-making that affects them and guaranteeing transparency so that individuals have access to information and are able to understand, interpret, and act on the information available to them.
  • A rights-based approach is also premised upon the principle of freedom from discrimination and equality between men and women. This is closely linked to the issue of accessibility. For example, the right to water specifically rules out exclusion from needed services according to ability to pay.This is crucial in ensuring the delivery of services to the poor.
  • A central feature of a rights-based approach is the notion of accountability, which in practice requires the development of adequate laws, policies, institutions, administrative procedures and practices, and mechanisms of redress.This calls for the translation of the internationally recognized right to water into locally determined benchmarks for measuring progress, thereby enhancing accountability.
  • A rights-based approach may deliver more sustainable solutions because decisions are focused on what communities and individuals require, understand and can manage, rather than what external agencies deem is needed.

Who is affected?

  • The poor: Among those most directly affected by unsafe water are the poor in both rural and urban areas. Not only are the poor less likely to have access to safe water and sanitation, but they are also less likely to have the financial and human resources to manage the impact of this deprivation.
Some 80% of those who have no access to improved sources of drinking-water are the rural poor - who may also have less access to political and lobbying processes than their urban counterparts.The ‘‘cost” of lack of access to safe water is reflected in the day-to-day investment of time to collect water - time that is not then available for productive activity, household or child care or education; and in the burden of disease arising from water collection - including injury and water contact diseases such as schistosomiasis.
  • Women: Women, in many cultures, are assigned an inferior social, economic, and political status.They often suffer most from a lack of access to water and sanitation.Almost 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty are women (WHO, 2001). Research has shown that, on average, households in rural Africa spend 26% of their time fetching water, and it is generally women who perform this duty (DFID, 2001a). The water that is collected is often dirty, from an unprotected source, such as a stream or scoophole. Simply by collecting water they may be exposed to risks of schistosomiasis.Women’s health may also be affected by the heavy burden of carrying water.
  • Children: Lack of accessible safe water increases the vulnerability of children to diseases.Their immune systems and detoxification mechanisms are not fully developed, so they are often less able to respond to a water-related infection. Children also have less body mass than adults.This means that a water borne chemical may be dangerous for a child at a concentration that is relatively harmless for an adult.
  • Indigenous peoples: Indigenous peoples may face problems accessing safe water. Natural water sources traditionally used by them, such as lakes and rivers, may no longer be accessible because of land expropriation or contamination.
While water is important to every community, many indigenous groups rely on waterways and water bodies for their traditional livelihoods, including fishing, whaling, and sealing.When access to fresh water is compromised, often indigenous rights to self-determination and occupation are impinged upon, as are their water-reliant traditions.

Governments’ responsibilities

  • Duty to respect: maintaining existing access
The right to water may be realized, partially or fully, as a result of a person’s own actions, government assistance or a combination of both. However, government activities may impinge upon people’s existing entitlements to water. For instance, a government institution may pollute a river required for drinking-water supply; a local authority may unfairly disconnect the water supply of residents; a law may prevent access by a group to a traditional water source or piped water.
  • Duty to protect: regulating third parties
A government is not the only actor that can endanger or restrict the right to water. Individuals and corporations have the potential to interfere with a person’s or community’s water supply. For example, pollution from factories, farming or sewage can greatly damage the quality of water used for drinking.A private individual can deny access to a river needed for washing, or a corporation may increase prices for water services to unaffordable levels.
  • Duty to fulfill: going forward
In essence, the duty to fulfill requires that governments take active steps to ensure that everyone can enjoy the right to water as soon as possible.This encompasses the obligations to facilitate, promote and provide.The obligation to facilitate requires the State to take positive measures to assist individuals and communities to enjoy the right.The obligation to promote obliges the State Party to take steps to ensure that there is appropriate education concerning the hygienic use of water, protection of water sources and methods to minimize water wastage. States Parties are also obliged to fulfill (provide) the right when an individual or a group are unable, for reasons beyond their control, to realize that right themselves by the means at their disposal.

Field experiences

The following project make use of rights-based approaches:

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RSR Project 475
Health Village: WASH Monitoring Perspective
RSR Project 477
Creating an enabling environment for WASH
RSR Project 495
Sustainable progress in WASH
RSR Project 767
Access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene
RSR Project 366
WASH Sustainability through Women Led MFI
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RSR Project 367
SWASH in Birendranagar, Surkhet
RSR Project 662
WASH Alliance Policy Influencing Programme

Videos & links

  • It's not just about rape! Women need toilets, not only to protect themselves from rape but to also preserve their dignity and health. Sanitation is a fundamental human right and not just temporary media hype.

Mazibuko Water Rights Journey, Part 1
Mazibuko Water Rights Journey, Part 2
Mazibuko Water Rights Journey, Part 3
Mazibuko Water Rights Journey, Part 4
Mazibuko Water Rights Journey, Part 5 of 5


  • The Right to Water. Health and human rights publication series; no. 3. World Health Organization 2003.