Covid-19 and the Right to Water: The Impact of Handwashing Guidance in Atolls with Limited Running Water

Covid-19 and the Right to Water: The Impact of Handwashing Guidance in Atolls with Limited Running Water

[Sue Farran is a Reader at Newcastle University Law School, with a particular interest in Pacific island states on which she has published widely, especially in the context of human rights, natural resources and environmental challenges. Rhona Smith is Professor of International Human Rights at Newcastle University and has worked on human rights capacity building across the Asia Pacific region. Sean Molloy is a Lecturer at Northumbria University Law School, with a particular interest in human rights law, transitional justice and peacebuilding.] 

Schiel, Wilson and Langford’s recent LSE Blog on the right to water identifies that “Global health crises often expose pre-existing weaknesses in public health systems.” This is undoubtedly true. The global pandemic has, however, equally drawn into stark relief one particular aspect of the right to water and its salience in the current pandemic: the impact of climate change on access to water and implications for regular ‘preventive’ handwashing. We examine this from the perspective of atolls with limited running water.

Progressively realising the right to water

The right to water at first was not explicitly recognized as a self-standing human right in international human rights treaties. Instead it was understood to support the realisation of other rights. Article 11 of the International Covenant in Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides for the recognition of the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. It does not refer explicitly to water but the word ‘including’ has been interpreted as meaning that the article is not exhaustive and does indeed include a right to water. General Comment No. 15(2002) of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explained that water is a prerequisite for the realisation of other human rights. Article 24 (2)(c) Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) does explicitly mention water, stipulating that state parties shall ensure women the right to ‘enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply’ (see also Article 24 (2), of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities).  

In more recent years, the notion of a right to water has made significant headway. In March 2008, the Human Rights Council established an independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Then, on 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights. This statement was revisited in December 2015 with a resolution recognising that the human right to safe drinking water ensures everyone, without discrimination, access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. Of course now, ensuring the right to water is an important target of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 6).

Notwithstanding these developments, as Katherine Young notes, ‘[i]n international human rights law, waiting is an accepted part of rights realization.’ As part of the broader category of socio-economic rights, the right to water must be progressively realised by states. While states are required to take positive and proactive steps in pursuance of these rights, progress may be limited by the level of available resources.

The concept of progressive realisation is particularly relevant in the context of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV2, which causes Covid-19. A central (and arguably fundamental) aspect of the global response to Covid-19 has been the emphasis on regular handwashing. Around the world, government campaigns, not least at the behest of the World Health Organisation, advocate the necessity for regular and thorough handwashing with soap and running water or the use of alcohol-based sanitiser.  The message, whilst widely communicated, can obscure the fact that adhering to these demands is taken for granted – we wash our hands because we can. In many places, however, this is simply not possible. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank estimates that nearly 63% of people in urban areas, the main clusters of the virus, find it hard to access basic water services and cannot easily wash their hands in running water. In many developing and less developed countries, access to clean washing water (far less potable water) remains a challenge. Covid-19 has exposed existing fault lines in ways that shine a light on the implications of inadequate water supplies.

Atolls, Handwashing and Climate Change

What has gone relatively unexamined is the impact of climate change on access to water and the additional vulnerability that countries already exposed to its effects are now facing in light of Covid-19. Any positive progressive realisation of access to water, although taking into account the particular circumstances that states might face economically, must also factor in the negative, much faster, implications of climate change and, currently, the combined effects of this and a pandemic.

This is demonstrated by looking at atolls – ring-shaped coral reefs, islands, or series of islets – where depleted levels of water are often decreasing. A feature that many atolls have in common is that they have very limited sources of fresh water, often with no running water. This gives rise to numerous problems in the context of climate change and global warming, notably that ground water becomes infiltrated by saltwater, and as sea levels rise, many atolls are being inundated. Water, other than sea water, is a rare commodity and, particularly in more remote areas, alcohol-based sanitiser is unlikely to be found outwith (perhaps) the primary health centres. Climate change is having an adverse impact on the enjoyment of rights in innumerable ways, affecting, for instance, the rights to work, housing and food security, as well as creating environmental refugees and internal displacement. In addition, the centrality of water to such rights as an adequate standard of living, the highest attainable standard of health, and adequate food, underline the interrelatedness and interdependency of rights.

The efforts to progressively realise rights in these contexts cannot be understood solely on the basis of available resources. What the current pandemic has shown is that notwithstanding the drawing of the connections between climate change and the known impacts on human rights, the impacts of inadequate access to running water can have consequences, many of which are not yet even identified or known. The relationship between the virus and handwashing illuminates the latter as a front line of defence, whereas the impact of climate change on access to water identifies how those without access to water are left more vulnerable. The inability to resort to basic hygiene and sanitation facilities to stave off the virus because of climate change thus connects the issue of Covid-19 and water with broader climatic changes. In effect, the virus demonstrates, now at a very relatable level, the real impacts of climate change for people in particular areas of the world. Even in the UK, with May the sunniest and driest on record, Northern Ireland was encouraging water saving to safeguard supplies and implementing drought orders. The next time we wash our hands it should be with the realisation that the ability to do so stems from our luck in living somewhere with reasonable supplies of running water. It is all too evident that climate change in the era of pandemic infectious diseases such as Covid-19 poses a threat to not only the right to access clean and safe water, but also by extension, a specific element of the right to the highest attainable level of health – prevention of communicable viruses.

A Renewed Collective Effort

It is, however, not all bad news. In drawing connections between the arbitrariness of climate change, water and Covid-19 through the issue of handwashing, we can be renewed in our efforts to support access to water globally. Covid-19 has helped to highlight the total vulnerability that flows from water scarcity when even simple instructions to wash hands regularly cannot be realistically followed. Alongside international cooperation necessary to fight the virus, the virus itself and the vulnerabilities that it exposes should serve to reinforce the need for collective action in tackling the impact of climate change and the particular vulnerability which those, in places highly susceptible to its impacts, may find themselves. Most atoll states swiftly closed borders and are taking measures to limit the potential introduction and then transmission of Covid-19. Of course, that comes at an economic cost, as the International Monetary Fund notes, and consequently investment in socio-economic rights such as clean water, sanitation and health may be negatively impacted. As a result, preparation and protection against the disease will likely be weakened.

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Environmental Law, Featured, General, International Human Rights Law, Law and Sustainability
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