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Joe Turner’s Q&A with Leo Heller (UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation)

It’s rare to find a science journalist who will be passionate about sanitation, so when I came across Joe Turner and his work covering sanitation and soil science, I was fascinated. We struck a wonderful conversation about whether sanitation is “safe” and whether naming it a human right would ever change things and improve access. From there, Joe mentioned he had done a Question and Answer interview with Leo Heller, the current UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation, succeeding Catarina de Albuquerque).

Below the entire text of the Q&A, courtesy of (and authored by) Joe Turner. Thanks for letting me publish it on my blog, Joe! I find Heller’s responses extremely insightful.

Leo Heller Q&A

Question: what does it mean to describe access to safe water and sanitation as a human right?

Heller: The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation establish a legal framework, which clearly defines rights and obligations, in order to promote pro-poor and non-discriminatory provision and to avoid retrogressions in the level of access. They decisively have the potential of contributing to the empowerment of individuals by transforming them from passive recipients to active agents of change.

Question: does this mean that there should be universal access to high quality water-based sanitation everywhere in the world?

Heller: Water and sanitation are integrally related and equally important for a life of health and dignity. Lack of safe sanitation is a major cause of contamination of water sources. Without safe and environmentally adequate sanitation, safe drinking water can be seriously jeopardized. On the other hand, sanitation are not necessarily “water-borne sanitation” especially in rural areas.

Question: Do you see the right to water and the right to sanitation as conflicting things?

Heller: In my opinion, the human right to water and the human right to sanitation could be recognized as two distinct and interlinked human rights, derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. The recognition of the specific right to sanitation would contribute to the perception of the need of specific efforts for its universal access. Moreover, would eliminate the idea of this dimension of the right as the “poor cousin” of the water dimension.

Question: On that point, should there not be a Special Rapporteur for sanitation?

Answer: Improving sanitation may require a different type of interventions with a strong focus on creating or reinforcing demand for sanitation, hygiene education and behaviour change. However, in most urban areas, served by sewerage systems, the provider and the regulator of both the services are usually the same and the tariff structure considers water and sanitation together. Those interlinkages justify having only one Special Rapporteur, avoiding to fragment this traditionally holistic approach.

Question: How will you promote sanitation in your appointment?

Heller: There is now a good momentum to prioritize sanitation in discussions on the post-2015 development agenda because a target on sanitation is one of the most off-track targets under the UN Millennium Development Goals. I will certainly promote access to sanitation on an equal footing with access to water, and accord it more significance in the dialogue with State parties. Adequate solutions for sanitation may vary depending on people’s needs, locations, human and financial resources among other considerations. “Improved sanitation”, as considered in the MDG [Millennium Development Goal] statistics, does not necessarily meet the requirements of the right to sanitation and can increase the gap between Northern and Southern countries regarding the level of access. The right to sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.

Joe Turner is a science journalist with particular interests in soil science and sanitation. You can read more of his work on his site. You can also follow him on Twitter as @bucksci.

RPV’s commentary – I have to say that I find it interesting that Leo Heller doesn’t seem to think we need a special Rapporteur for the Human Right to Sanitation. Given my years of working in this field and studying the governance of sanitation, I have found myself frustrated with the lack of interest in what happens with water AFTER it has been used. Wastewater is (apparently, to this day) still an after-thought. I am very glad, however, that it seems to be gaining (slowly) more recognition as an important issue.

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