Human Rights Based Approach at World Water Week 2021

Blog Sep 27, 2021

As the buzz around the hugely successful digital World Water Week 2021 starts to fade, the Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) team at SIWI reflects upon their highlights of the week. HRBA is one of SIWI’s cross-cutting issues, along with gender equality and youth empowerment, which are the guiding principals underpinning SIWI's work. The HRBA team spans the entire organization, with a dedicated champion in each department, under the guide of SIWI’s HRBA expert and focal point, Dr. Jenny Grönwall. 

Human Rights were well represented within numerous sessions at the 2021 WWW, through a range of different topics: from supporting indigenous communities, to climate justice, to promoting the basic human right to water through better regulated WASH. Here is a hand-picked selection of the HRBA team’s favourites. 

Indigenous values and stewardship: Lessons to rebuild our watery relationships 

This powerful session brought together elders from three different indigenous communities, to talk about their connections to the waterways on their lands, and their values with regards to water in general. Despite being from different corners of the world, their overarching perspectives as passed down through the generations, were strikingly similar and unifying. The elders (from the Dharriwaa Elders Group in Australia, the Maya Ch’orti tribe in Guatemala, and the Carcross/Tagish First Nations in Alaska) also discussed the water challenges their tribes face and the threat to their human right to water; namely the disregard for the deep connection they have to their waterways by competing interests. As we start to understand that modern methods for water resource management don’t always provide a holistic overview, from up to downstream and for all users, there are certainly lessons to be learned from the indigenous perspective. As the session convener, Dr Jennifer Veilleux, stated in her conclusion ‘there are different ways of knowing things’.  

Water stories: Visual narratives of urban flows 

This inspiring session presented water stories and diagrams as an intuitive tool for creating narratives around urban water flows. By targeting a broad audience, this can ultimately enable a more sustainable urban water management. As part of the interactive event, the audience discussed how to develop the tool to allow users to link natural and human systems as well as water supply and demand. One breakout room focused on the perspective of human rights advocates, the challenge of representing social inequality issues, and the prospects of drawing on participatory methods to collect data from the ground and involve stakeholders. Visual tools are a promising method to communicate on the human rights to water and sanitation, and to foster collaboration between IWRM and WASH communities. 

Self-supply’s potential for increased resilience and water security 

Self-supply means households taking charge of water provisioning as a rural and urban coping mechanism, often in response to inadequate supply. Self-financed access has the potential to support improved health and nutrition, and generate income. The session, arranged by a group of organizations with experience from research and practical implementation on the ground, featured SIWI’s Jenny Grönwall talking about the interface of the growing global dependence on groundwater and the human rights to water and sanitation. She lifted that international human rights law seems to point to self-supply being the norm; only when households cannot reasonably be expected to provide for themselves, must the State go in and directly distribute water. To ensure the right to adequate physical and mental health, and to Leave No One Behind, the State must give clear and user-friendly advice on treatment and resource protection.  

SIWI Seminar: Information, governance and justice for climate resilience (3/3) 

Climate lawsuits involving violations of human rights have added an arena for demanding a future without climate-induced droughts and flooding. This seminar featured a keynote presentation by Professor Jonas Ebbesson, Stockholm Environmental Law and Policy Centre, on climate litigations, followed by discussions with the audience. Even if water may not be at the center for all those court cases, their outcomes always matter for water, as climate change is felt through drought, floods, and polluted water. We are all rights-holders with claims for sustainable water resources and a healthy environment, but also with moral responsibilities toward our neighbours, nature and the unborn. Water outcomes are central in climate litigations; though court cases alone will not achieve justice, they are transformative in pushing action and shifting policy landscapes over time. 

Promoting rights to water and sanitation: Key role of regulators (Spanish and English) 

This session presented the newly developed WASHReg Approach, a collaboration between UNICEF, SIWI and the Regional WASH Program in Latin America, and promoted by IADB (Inter American Develomment Bank), Lisbon International Center for Water (Lis-Water) and Asociación De Entes Reguladores De Agua Potable Y Saneamiento De Las Américas (ADERASA). The WASHReg Approach provides tools to: assess the WASH regulatory framework and all stakeholders, to promote strategies and public policies, and to enhance regulation and institutional capacities within the WASH sector. Regulatory actors from different countries and contexts discussed their experiences and challenges in the process of regulation improvement from a human rights lens. 

Regulation plays an essential role in the practice of human rights to water and sanitation. It is the instrument which ensures an adequate provision of services through formal legal mechanisms, which then enables those involved to fulfil their responsibilities. Unfortunately, however, regulation is often not adequately aligned with the principles and norms of human rights, or it might not even fully incorporate them. Furthermore, the regulator might not adequately support and influence change to ensure human rights are included in the regulatory framework? And this can be further complicated by diverse regulatory models. 

Toilets in public spaces: understanding citizens’ needs beyond the household 

The provision of water and sanitation services focuses mainly on meeting the demands of households, paying less attention to the demands in public spaces. Thus, many citizens see their rights overlooked beyond the household, not only because of the limited availability of toilets in public spaces, but also because of their inadequate and precarious conditions, accessibility difficulties, or because they are far from meeting the specific needs of a diverse society. Also, homeless people can not be left out of this plight. How can we ensure that the provision of toilets in public spaces is inclusive, affordable, safe and accessible? Can cities become more responsive and friendlier if urban planners, related to public health, public service delivery, regulators and those involved in the provision of services in public spaces, consider the framework and principles of the human rights to water and sanitation? The session presented the experiences of some cities, the needs of vulnerable groups (street workers, homeless people, people with disabilities, transgender people, elderly people, women and girls) and the challenges of providing toilets in public spaces as a fundamental element of sustainable, accessible and inclusive cities.  

Healthy forests, healthy people – managing the forest nexus 

This interactive session was convened by the Forest Water Champions. Professor Irena Creed, University of Saskatchewan, stated in her keynote  indigenous knowledge plays an important role in raising awareness of the forest-water nexus. For example, in the Clearwater River Dënë Nation, northern Canada, indigenous youth and scientists collaborate to develop the next generation of climate leaders, applying lessons from sustainable forest-water management approaches to adapt to devastating climate change and protect their futures.  
The conclusions from three group discussions were all related to HRBA: 

  • The first group concluded that integrated forest/water management contribute to ecosystem resilience and fair societies depend on transparency and inclusion of indigenous practices, traditional knowledge, technical and transdisciplinary knowledge.  
  • The second group explored landscape governance principals that can enhance equitability and resilience. It concluded that principles such as being participatory, transparent, reciprocal, humble and authentic, responsive and adaptable to new influences can enable vulnerable communities to be included in discussions, engaged in design processes, and participate in monitoring and evaluation. 
  • The third group focused on how market approaches can contribute to sustainable commodity production and resource use in forest landscapes. It recommended using human rights-based approaches to ensure that private-sector companies don’t overlook individual and community rights.  

Guide to Water Cooperation at the 2021 Online World Water Week 

Over 40 sessions focused on water cooperation at this year’s World Water Week, with several elevating key aspects of HRBA such as the ‘Climate Migration: Water Services and Water Security in Displacement Settings’ session. This was convened by a broad consortium of partners including the Water Youth Network, which put focus on the human right to water and sanitation in displaced person settlements. This informal guide details the full scope of these 40 sessions.