Testing the water: How can the right to water and sanitation enhance the World Bank’s policy and pra

Political cafe: In the Bank we trust (9 October)

13 October 2008 | Minutes

This event brought together a panel of World Bank representatives with civil society members who have worked extensively on issues of access and the right to water and sanitation.

Virginia Roaf of the Center for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) began the program by outlining the important components of the right to water and sanitation and giving examples of where this has been applied.

The key aspects for the right to water are that it:

  • It establishes a priority for basic services and universal access at the most basic level
  • Addresses issue of exclusion
  • It highlights that communities must have access to information and b able to participate in decision-making
  • Establishes accountability, making water and sanitation a legal entitlement rather than a matter of charity.

The right to water and sanitation has been taken up at the national level in many countries such as in the South Africa constitution.

This led into the presentation of Hameda Deedat, a Gender, Trade and Water Activist with from South Africa with Umzabalaso We Jubilee. She acknowledged that World Bank policy has been shifting on the privatization of water systems, which is welcome by civil society. However, she asserted that World Bank should take this a step further to acknowledge water beyond its economic value. The Bank should also be encouraging the right to water in its engagement with countries in the loan process.

The shift in Bank policy was also acknowledged and highlighted by Freshwater Action in addressing the work of the Bank in Latin America in providing technical assistance on water and acknowledging the right to water through these programs.

Jamal Saghir, Director of Energy, Transport and Water, in the Sustainable Vice Presidency (SDNVP) of the World Bank, highlighted the role of the Bank as the largest financier for sanitation. He drew attention to the extent to which the issue of sanitation is often left in the shadow of water issues, but is perhaps an eve more pressing issue and one to which civil society organization should turn greater attention.

While he acknowledged water as a social good and said the Bank welcomes and acknowledges General Comment 15 on the Right to Water. At the same time, he forcefully asserted that water must be paid for and that the right to water doesn’t ensure free provision of water. Given that political decisions on access to water are where there are the most bottlenecks, he felt that there must be more than the legal framework laid out by a rights approach.

In the financial crisis, Mr. Saghir emphasized that financing for water systems, which has not received much attention thus far, may be one of the first things to be cut in the face of a credit crunch generated by the financial crisis. And yet, water is key to addressing issues of food crisis

Herman Wijfells, the outgoing Dutch Executive Director to the World Bank added to the discussion by emphasizing that the Dutch feel water is too important to leave to be regulated by markets. Despite his liberal views, he emphasized that it would be a challenge for the Bank to be a driver of the right to water since this is played out in national legislation and it would be politically charged for the Bank to put conditions on the right to water in loans.

Furthermore, he highlighted larger structural challenges with respect to rights within the World Bank and the fact that the Bank Board doesn’t agree on the issue and therefore would not be able to come to a consensus given the split in views over the issue. Finally, he asserted that the Bank must be given room to translate human rights messages into the way it operates and the framework within which it is able to carry out its work, which is not an explicit rights framework.

Mr. Saghir further emphasized that the Bank is often brought in when water systems are failing and leaders are under political pressure to deliver on quick reforms. In this context, approaching national governments with rights language is a difficult point of entry. However, the legal framework around rights can later be mentioned.

In response to these concerns Virginia Roaf emphasized that the right to water should not be considered politically sensitive ground in that it has been internationally agreed upon by many donor countries and developing countries within the Bank – the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which ensures the right to water, was ratified by 159 countries. The right to water is also protected under the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by 185 countries – over ninety percent of the members of the United Nations. It is also specifically mentioned in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by 192 countries as of November 2005.

One point of agreement among the civil society participants and Bank staff is that the MDGs have failed by not acknowledging water as a key factor in achieving several of the goals established.