Are access to safe drinking water and sanitation human rights?
The United Nations declared that access to water and sanitation are human rights, but some argue that water is an economic good or commodity.
Water and sanitation as a human right
Most scientists agree that humans can survive only for a few days without taking in any food or water. 1
The UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council recognised safe drinking water as a human right in 2010, 2 and five years later the General Assembly explicitly recognised sanitation as a distinct human right. 3 Malaysia voted Yes to the 2010 resolution.
What does this mean?
- The right to water entitles everyone to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use. 4
- The right to sanitation entitles everyone to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity. 4
Why did the UN recognise this right?
- The Human Rights Council explained in 2010 that the right to water derives from the right to an adequate standard of living.
- UN Water states that “lack of access to safe, sufficient and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene facilities has a devastating effect on the health, dignity and prosperity of billions of people, and has significant consequences for the realization of other human rights”. 4
For a deeper discussion on international and national laws on water as a human right, check out this link.
Water and sanitation as an economic good
Water and sanitation as both economic good and human right
Some views lie in between; for example, that water needed for survival is a human right and must be made available to everyone even if they cannot afford to pay for it, but that any additional usage should be paid for because of the infrastructure needed to supply it. 6
However, it has also been argued that it is inadequate to define the human right to water as the amount of water required to survive, since this is less than the water needed to maintain human dignity (for example, health and hygiene). 7
What is the state of water security globally?
An estimated 1.6 billion people in developing countries still do not have the infrastructure to get water from rivers and aquifers 8 . Population growth, increases in water consumption levels and climate change continue to drive water scarcity.
What is the state of the water sector in Malaysia?
This section will look at four aspects of the water sector in Malaysia: access to water, water consumption and supply, as well as challenges faced by the sector.
What is the state of access to water in Malaysia?
What is the state of water consumption in Malaysia?
Malaysians have a water consumption rate of approximately 220-250 litres of water which is the highest in Southeast Asia. Neighbouring countries such as Thailand use water at an estimated rate of 160 to 170 litres per day per person, Singapore at 130 to 150 litres per day per person, and Indonesia at 140 to 160 litres per day per person 8 .
What is the state of the water supply in Malaysia?
97% of Malaysia’s water supply is sourced from surface water flows such as rivers and wetland while water storage is mainly via reservoirs.
What challenges are faced by the water sector in Malaysia?
This dependence on surface water makes Malaysia vulnerable to extreme weather and unpredictability in rainfall. For example, Malaysia experienced droughts in 1998 and in 2014. The 2014 drought caused our dams to reduce in capacity by up to 53%; in the Klang Valley, this resulted in residents experiencing alternate day rationing. In fact, since 2010, water shortage has increased in a few states in Peninsular Malaysia, including Perlis, Kedah, Pulau Pinang, Selangor and Melaka 8 .
Last year, the Ex-Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources stated that the country is expected to see water resources reduced by 20-25% by the years 2025-2030 due to longer droughts caused by climate change, but the water industry is not yet equipped to effectively address such water shortages 12 . In fact, a study from 2010 forecasted that climate change will contribute to more droughts in 2028, 2029, 2034, 2042 and 2044 13 . However, the general uncertainty found in climate models used to provide such future scenarios makes it challenging for the country to conduct specific water planning efforts 14 .
On top of this, local water resources are facing growing demands and pressures from population growth, urbanisation, industrialisation, expansion of irrigated agriculture and climate change. These contributing factors (with the exception of climate change) have also led to water pollution events 15 .
How does water security relate to other issues?
Water security, like climate change, intersects with many other issues.
Water and human wellbeing
Water security, in the context of human wellbeing, means that people have access to safe, sufficient and affordable water to:
- meet basic needs for drinking, sanitation and hygiene,
- to safeguard health and well-being, and
- to fulfill basic human rights 16
Extreme weather, such as heat waves, droughts and floods, is expected to become more frequent and severe as our climate changes. Heatwaves and droughts can reduce water reserves, whereas floods can contaminate water reserves.
Water provision and ecosystems
Water security, in the context of ecosystems, means that ecosystems are preserved and are able to provide resources on which both nature and people rely, including providing freshwater 16 .
The health of ecosystems is an important consideration in water management; for example, the Central Forest Spine of Peninsular Malaysia, which consists of four main forests, supplies 90% of the Peninsula’s water 17 . When ecosystems in a river basin are degraded, the rate of flow of water through the basin (known as “drainage rate”) becomes faster, making downstream flooding worse.
Climate change is an important influence on the health of ecosystems; for example, it can cause vicious cycles of degradation in forests. When forests are degraded by logging or clearing, rainfall can be reduced since there are fewer trees moving water from deep within the ground to the air. Less rainfall causes rainforest trees to be weaker and drier and to catch fire more easily, which causes even more forest to be lost 18 .
Malaysia’s Biennial Update Report (2015) to the United Nations placed more emphasis on the importance of integrated water resource management and basin management, including nature-based solutions 19 .
Water and economic development
Water security, in the context of economic development, means that adequate water supplies are available not just for drinking, but also for food production, energy production, industry, transport and tourism.
The relationships between water, energy and food are called the “energy-water-food nexus”.
Water and food security (water-food nexus)
All living things on Earth need water - us humans as well as the plants and animals that we depend on for food. An example of this water-food nexus is rice, which is a staple food in Malaysia. Modelling at Universiti Putra Malaysia showed that increase in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change could reduce local rice yield by 12% during the main growing season and 31.3% during the off season, from 2015 to 2030 20 . Furthermore, 25% of our rice supply is imported 21 , so will depend on conditions in other countries and the operation of supply chains.
Energy security (water-energy nexus)
Every step of the water cycle — producing, moving and treating water, then collecting and treating wastewater — consumes energy 22 .
In the opposite direction: almost every source of power consumes water in some form. The extraction and processing of natural gas, petroleum and coal require large amounts of water 23 . Even more water is required if oil, gas and coal are used to generate electricity with steam turbines, especially if the cooling water is only used once.
Transitioning to energy sources with lower carbon emissions could result in either an increase or decrease in water consumption per unit of electricity generated, depending on the choice of technologies. Therefore, as we plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change, planning in the power sector may need to include considerations of water resources to avoid unintended negative consequences 24 .
Water-related hazards and climate change
Water security in this context means that communities are resilient to “water-related natural hazards”, which includes floods, droughts and pollution.
Many global risks of climate change are concentrated in urban areas. Some of these which are water-related include rising sea levels and storm surges, extreme rainfall, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, drought, and water scarcity. In Malaysia, the issue is complicated further with property development continuing to happen in areas which are vulnerable to flooding 14 .
Since at least some climate change is likely to happen since the global average temperature has already increased by about 1°C in the last 100 to 200 years, the ability to adapt to an increase in extreme weather is very important. For example, this could take the form of better planning of infrastructure and societal systems that includes the input of diverse stakeholders, or building the capacity of citizens, particularly the poor and vulnerable, to deal with these natural hazards and disasters.