Info Service on Finance and Development (Nov13/01)
13 November 2013
Third World Network
standards on right to water bear meaning for finance
Published in SUNS #7691 dated 7 November 2013
Washington DC, 6 Nov (Aldo Caliari*) -- The latest report by the UN
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water and Sanitation ("the
Rapporteur"), Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, focuses on the theme
sustainability and non-retrogression in the realization of the rights
to water and sanitation.
The report offers useful and welcome guidance for those seeking to
draw meaning from the human right to water on the areas of finance,
investment and other related economic ones.
Some of its developments will arguably be useful beyond the right
to water, charting a path for how to draw such meaning in the case
of other rights.
The Rapporteur connects the notion of sustainability to both the obligations
of progressive realization and non-retrogression in the realization
of human rights.
According to the Rapporteur, financing challenges pose a significant
threat to sustainability: "Underfunding is a present-day issue
and a major restriction on the ability to provide sustainable water
and sanitation, one that is exacerbated during times of crisis."
About non-retrogression, the report considers that measures that directly
or indirectly lead to backward steps in the enjoyment of human rights
are most frequently imposed in times of financial or economic crisis.
This is probably why the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights addressed retrogression mainly in the context of decisions
by States to adopt austerity measures that may have a negative impact
on the realization of human rights.
Those are deliberately retrogressive measures but the report calls
attention to measures that, even if not deliberately regressive, may
have a retrogressive effect.
This is the case, for instance, "where States fail to ensure
adequate operation and maintenance, where they fail to implement adequate
mechanisms for regulation, monitoring and sector oversight, or where
they fail to build and strengthen their capacity in the long term."
Where States reduce spending on water and sanitation, this can have
negative consequences for sustainability, both in growth and crisis
The report underscores that the poorest are the ones that suffer the
most from cuts in public spending. This is because they are the ones
"who tend to receive a higher proportion of their income from
social security benefits, rely heavily on public services, and spend
a higher proportion of their income on basic services".
Against this backdrop, the report mentions that since 2010, cuts in
public expenditure have been the most common reaction to the crisis
in Europe, giving the examples of Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain,
with decreased public expenditure programmes introduced at the request
of the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International
Insufficient budgeting is another area where the sustainability is
relevant to apply.
The Rapporteur finds that lack of national budgeting that incorporates
a long-term perspective and in particular operation and maintenance
costs, jeopardizes sustainable provision.
Crisis might affect sustainability through another channel: official
She refers to the OECD figures showing that aid in the last year dropped
for the first time since 1997. While water and sanitation sectors
have not been as affected by decreasing aid commitments as other sectors,
commitments to sanitation and water were already lower than those
for most social sectors.
In a section discussing non-State service provision models, she raises
some issues regarding provision by the private sector. One of them
is lack of investment by the private sector.
As mentioned in a submission by RightingFinance (http://www.rightingfinance.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Read-full-document.pdf),
"growing financialization of the world economy witnessed in the
last decades, while accompanied by a lower share of participation
of wages in GDP, was also accompanied by a lower share of participation
of investment in GDP. This confirms the finding that profit growth
does not necessarily translate into increases in investment."
The Rapporteur asserts that: "Often profits made by private operators
are almost fully distributed among shareholders, rather than being
partially reinvested in maintaining and extending service provision,
the result being increased prices for consumers, continued need for
public investment, and potentially unsustainable services."
Another issue concerns the lack of participation and accountability.
"Once the decision to privatize has been made, and especially
in the context of economic crisis, the process of selling the assets
often does not include sufficient opportunities for meaningful public
participation," she says.
Indeed, participation deficits tend to be exacerbated in times of
crisis, where "the State seeks to avoid the financial costs of
participation and is under time pressure to adopt austerity-related
The Rapporteur reminds States that they are never exempted from their
human rights obligations, including the duty to give people the opportunity
to pronounce themselves on issues that concern them.
Concrete consequences that the lack of respect for this principle
may carry are that the State misunderstands the barriers to access,
and fails to pinpoint how these barriers might be overcome, or that
resulting policy choices might simply be unacceptable to the people
they aim to serve.
In a section on recommendations, the Rapporteur draws implications
of the principle of maximum available resources for both good and
"Human rights standards demand that States invest the ‘maximum
available resources' in the sectors," she says.
"In times of prosperity, spending on water and sanitation has
to include planning, independent monitoring, establishment of accountability
mechanisms, and operation and maintenance, so as to enable the progressive
realization of the rights even during times of crisis, hence preventing
slippages and retrogression."
Incorporating teachings from the Committee on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights' interpretation of this principle, she also draws
the conclusion that "it is important to assess whether maximum
available resources are truly being devoted to the sectors by examining
the national allocation of funds to areas such as the military, bailouts
for banks, and the construction of infrastructure for the hosting
of mega-events, as well as the amount of funds lost due to the toleration
This is an important aspect also raised by RightingFinance members
in their submission, where they called for the assessment of State
responsibility for measures taken in times of crisis to not "cease
at the point of the crisis response measure(s) in question but [to]
extend into and inquire about how the State reached such situation.
States may face a budget crisis due to their failure to appropriately
set in place mechanisms that could have reasonably been in place to
avoid the use of budgetary resources for large bailout of private
financial institutions or private creditors. In this regard, the maxim
that ‘no one can be heard to invoke his own turpitude' becomes relevant."
The report emphasizes also the fiscal policy implications: "[T]imes
of crisis per se do not inevitably lead to regressions in implementing
the rights to water and sanitation. Fiscal austerity can be achieved
not only by cutting government spending, but also by increasing government
revenue. From a human rights perspective, a crucial question is how
such revenue is raised."
The Rapporteur adds that mobilizing tax revenue, in an appropriately
targeted manner, is the responsibility of governments, and a way of
implementing their human rights obligations.
This is also a premise of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and
Extreme Poverty's decision to focus her report of next year on fiscal
and tax policy and human rights.
Ms Albuquerque further proposes methods such as assessing the effective
tax rate (or tax to gross domestic product ratio) to provide indicators
for reviewing and benchmarking States, identifying failures in their
efforts to mobilize resources to meet the need for a water and sanitation
sector that is sustainable for all, forever.
(* Aldo Caliari, who contributed this article, is Director, Rethinking
Bretton Woods Project, Center of Concern, Washington DC.)