Access to Water & Sanitation

There is perhaps no right more basic and fundamental than the right to Water and Sanitation,the very foundations of life itself.
Sustainable Development Goal 6 emphasizes how climate change is degrading water sources worldwide and threatening the health and well-being of billions of people.

However, there has yet to be sufficient attention given to one of the most glaring transgressions of the rights to Water and Sanitation that occurs throughout the globe; that is, the active exclusion of people from Communities Discriminated on Work and Descent (CDWD) from clean water sources and the oppressive labor systems that result in them working in highly unsanitary conditions.


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Communities Discriminated on Work and Descent (CDWD)


Discrimination based on work and descent has historically been inextricably linked to issues of unacceptable sanitary conditions. Historically, CDWD such as Dalits in South Asia, the Burakumin in Japan, the Roma in Europe, the Quilombo in Brazil, the Al-Akhdam in Yemen, and a wide variety of groups in Africa such as the Osu in Nigeria and the Haratin in Mauritania have been forced through slavery, bonded labor or similar systems of hierarchical oppression into work that is unsanitary and damaging to an individual’s health. It is because of this work that these communities have been labeled as “Polluted” or “Untouchable,” and it is because they have been labelled as such that they have been segregated from the community at large and denied access to basic resources such as sanitation and water. Thus, we see that the issue of sanitation in the case of CDWD is a twofold issue of discrimination; the extreme discrimination they face forces them into unsanitary conditions, and the unsanitary conditions they live in result in only further discrimination and segregations.

There is perhaps no clearer example of this than that of manual scavengers in India; these are workers, almost always from Dalit castes, who clean human excrement from sewage systems by hand, exposing them to innumerable health hazards.

1. Despite the practice being outlawed, over 66,000 people are still employed as manual scavengers today, but because of the caste discrimination and stigma that they face they have been unable to find more adequate employment.
2. The case of manual scavengers led Leo Heller, then the UN special rapporteur on water and sanitation, to note in 2018 that addressing the crisis of public sanitation in India is not just a matter of installing more facilities. If this is done without also addressing the human rights crisis of discrimination against Dalits, then it is likely that public health programs will simply lead to Dalits being denied access to these facilities, or even being forced to clean them.
3. Public health programs must therefore be united with programs to enforce anti-discrimination laws and ensure that all members of society are given equal access to such programs.

The Roma of Europe are also a clear example of how discrimination based on work and descent is entangled with issues of inadequate sanitation. Facing extreme discrimination, the Roma are often forcibly evicted by government officials to the outskirts of society, and are often forced to live in landfills, where the majority find work by scavenging through the refuse. Living and working in these conditions thus results in the Roma being associated in the minds of the dominant community with waste, making it even more challenging for them to find adequate employment or housing elsewhere. And, predictably, living amongst waste – which often includes toxic materials dumped by local factories – has resulted in severe illnesses and death amongst the Roma community.

Access to water is another issue in which the discrimination faced by CDWDs becomes highly apparent; it is important to note that this issue is not separate from the issue of sanitation by any means. For example, by segregating the Roma from the society at large governments in Europe have also cut off their access to reliable and clean water, with no efforts being made to provide them with an alternative water source. It is estimated that 30 percent of Roma in Europe live without access to running water, and thus, many have had to turn to water from rivers that have been contaminated by the very same toxins that they are exposed to by living in landfills.

Similarly, Dalits in South Asia are likewise denied access to community water sources. Segregated to the outskirts of villages, Dalits often must walk long distances to fetch water from wells and pumps, and in the process are often harassed and even assaulted. Dalit children, meanwhile, are often denied access to water in schools. 6 It is estimated that less than 10 percent of Dalit households can afford clean drinking water. 7 As such, Dalits are extremely vulnerable to water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and hepatitis A.

The Sahel region of Africa is another area in which discrimination based on work and descent results in significant portions of the population being denied access to drinking water. In countries such as Niger, Mali, and Mauritania slavery of groups such as the Haratin and the Bellah is still widely practiced. These groups live in extreme poverty and often have no access to clean water, a condition which is growing worse by the day as desertification driven by climate change continues to wreak havoc on the Sahel’s ecosystem. 9 That these groups do not have access to water is made all the more troubling by the fact that one of the many tasks they are forced to undertake for their masters is fetching water from wells and other drinking sources. 10 In one case, a Haratin family in Mauritania escaped from slavery and settled near a water source, demonstrating the vital importance that access to water holds for these communities.


Gender It is important to emphasize that gender is one of the clearest intersectional issues that confronts any discussion held around the rights to water and sanitation, demonstrating how SDG 6 is related to SDG 5, which aims to achieve gender equality. In many CDWD families, it is the women who are most often given the task of collecting water. This means that women are particularly vulnerable to the harassment and violence that results from trying to access community water wells, and there are numerous reports from India of women and girls being killed for trying to do so. 12 Similarly, while the health issues that arise from poor access to sanitation effect every member of the community, it is those who are pregnant and menstruating that are most vulnerable to these adverse health conditions. Thus, it is clear that neither SDG 6 nor SDG 5 can truly be achieved without working to achieve both goals.