Faced with the common threat of Covid-19, global citizens are tasked to forgo ideological, social, political and economic differences.
Among the numerous solutions to tackling Covid, water is integral to the most basic and effective preventive measure – washing your hands. Studies by the World Health Organisation show that regular handwashing reduces stomach-related illness by half and respiratory illnesses by a third.
The Cost of Surviving
Reports from UNICEF prior to Covid-19 suggest that 2 in 5 schools around the world lack basic handwashing facilities. As the majority of these schools are government-owned institutions, private water providers are reluctant to provide optimal water facilities free-of-charge.
As kids return to school across the globe, it is important to ensure everything that could go right, goes right.
Like every other social good, the provision of water comes at a cost. New research presented by our partners Water Integrity Network (WIN) suggests that:
“Tariffs for water and sanitation are based on the assumption that all customers pay their bills. If some don’t pay, this negatively impacts the financial viability of water utilities. As a consequence, other customers pay by getting poor services and are subject to higher tariffs in the long run. Unserved populations pay by not having access to services.”
All groups of users are required to pay outstanding and running bills to ensure the general public does not bear a high cost of survival.
Claim Your Rights: The Rights to Water and Sanitation
Access to safe water and sanitation is a fundamental human right for all. On 28 July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognised the human right to water and sanitation through Resolution 64/292.
In 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed in Article 1.1 that
"The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights."
The fulfilment and protection of this right under General Comment No.15 ensures the right to water as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal uses.
Engulfed in the uncertainties of Covid-19, the importance of safe water and sanitation is tantamount to tackling the global epidemic. However, providing these rights to the general public is costly.
Government, Pay Your Water Bills Campaign: respect, protect and fulfil fundamental human rights
End Water Poverty and WIN, with the support of GIZ and in partnership with ESAWAS, AMCOW and others, launched ‘Government, Pay Your Water Bills’ to identify the severity of non-payment of water bills by public institutions.
The table below shows government arrears in Jamaica, Botswana, Kenya and Zambia. The example of Zambia highlights water corporations losing out on 50% of revenue due to non-payments.
During the ‘Government, Pay Your Water Bills’ launch at Stockholm World Water Week, Zambia NGO Wash Forum’s international representative Bubala Mumba explains that ‘the lackadaisical approach to non-payment of utility bills is attributed to the misconstrued notion that water, as a natural resource, requires no funding’.
Bubala Mumba reiterated the need for adequate regulations to empower corporations and the masses when it comes to issues of government accountability.
From the table above, it becomes increasingly clear that government officials are not prioritising their water bills!
It is the state’s responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil human rights (OCHR). The OCHR website explains that:
“The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights.”
Deconstructing the jargon of international jurists, the failure of governments to pay bills threatens people’s enjoyment of human rights in certain countries.
Most believe the issue of non-payment only affects people from less economically developed nations. However, End Water Poverty’s international coordinator Al-Hassan Adam explains how non-payment of government water bills affects the UK and other developed nations. He states in an interview with The Telegraph that:
“Right down from Detroit there are people struggling to get connected to water, to Canada where you have first nation people struggling for water access. If you take it back home, here in the UK, a lot of homeless people and travellers are struggling because they rely on access to public toilets and water stations which were closed during lockdown.”
The United Nation’s sustainable development goal to deliver safe water and sanitation by 2030 is unlikely if governments do not take the lead and pay their bills.
Most importantly, a major lesson of the global pandemic is the importance of good health to the economy. Ensuring a quality and affordable standard of living will require the government to do its job this time round.
- Access to safe water and sanitation are human rights
- Someone always pays: the delivery of water comes at a cost to every user
- If governments don't pay their utility bills, people pay the price. In the long run, you and I pay more than we should