Treating access to water and sanitation in the Arab world as a human right

Out of the 22 Arab countries, 13 are below the absolute water scarcity threshold.
Friday 18/05/2018
Low share. Palestinian children fill plastic gallons with drinking water from a vendor in Khan Younis. (AP)
Low share. Palestinian children fill plastic gallons with drinking water from a vendor in Khan Younis. (AP)

BEIRUT - Ensuring clean water and adequate sanitation for everyone in the Arab world was the focus of a meeting of Arab government officials and water, sanitation and health experts. Participants highlighted the importance of pursuing the Arab strategy for water security 2010-2030 set by the Arab Ministerial Water Council of the Arab League.

The strategy advocates a human rights-based approach to water and sanitation in the Arab region where an estimated 50 million people have no access to basic water supply and 74 million lack access to sanitation services.

“It is a basic human right to access water and sanitation,” said Hamed Bakir, a senior official at the Regional Centre for Environmental Health Activities of the World Health Organisation. “Water and sanitation services are important for the protection of our community and the health of our society. Every person must have access to safely managed water supply and sanitation… Not having that goes against human dignity and against human rights.”

“It is unacceptable today to have 74 million people who do not have sanitation facilities at home, including 24 million who defecate in the open. On top of that you have 50 million people still today who don’t have access to basic water supply. No running water in their homes, no water from a safe source and some don’t have water within 30 minutes’ walk from their homes,” Bakir said.

He pointed out that only 29% of existing sanitation systems in the Arab world are safely managed, “which means that the other systems would pollute the environment and the water resources.”

Lowest natural water endowment in the world

The Arab region has the lowest natural water endowment in the world and it is forecast to face severe water shortages mainly due to population growth, climate change and bad management of water resources.

Out of the 22 Arab countries, 13 are below the absolute water scarcity threshold of 500 cubic metres per capita per year and another five fall below the renewable water resources scarcity annual threshold of 1,000 cubic metres per capita, the United Nations said.

The freshwater scarcity is exacerbated by dependency on transboundary water resources, declining water quality, accessibility constraints due to occupation and conflict and water losses because of poor infrastructure.

The effect of occupation on water accessibility is particularly severe in the case of Palestinians in the occupied territories who get a mere 14% of the 770 million cubic metres of renewable water annually.

“In principle, we do not have water scarcity in Palestine, it is a direct implication of Israeli occupation,” said Mohammad al-Hmaidi, CEO of the Water Sector Regulatory Council in Ramallah. “Israel’s control over groundwater and the Jordan River deprives the Palestinians of their water rights and their share is the lowest in the region.”

In the West Bank, Israeli restrictions have hindered development of the water sector, including construction of wastewater treatment plants. In Gaza, the water situation is “disastrous” due to the chronic energy crisis caused by the Israeli siege and the inability to pump and distribute water, Hmaidi said.

“Israel’s digging of deep artesian wells to supply settlements in the West Bank deprives the Palestinians of benefiting from groundwater, increasing their dependency on buying water from Israel,” he said, stressing that “Israel’s continuous siphoning of groundwater will turn the West Bank into an extremely water-stressed area in no time.”

Provision of water should not be politicised

An “outcome document,” released at the end of the meeting, was conveyed to the Arab Forum for Sustainable Development and the Arab Ministerial Water Council, which is to convene in Beirut end of April and in Kuwait in May.

The priorities outlined in the paper include: Ensuring water sustainability, accessibility and affordability for all; improving water management, efficiency and conservation and rationalisation of water use and productivity; increasing the use of non-conventional water resources; rebuilding water installations damaged and destroyed by conflict and occupation as a priority; devising regional mechanism to protect shared water resources during conflict; and supporting climate change adaptation and mitigation through the lens of water scarcity.

The document stressed that the provision of water and sanitation for all should not be politicised, must be protected during social unrest and conflict and excluded from sanctions.

“Keeping the human interface of water as a top priority is needed,” Bakir said. “That means water for people in their homes and safely managed water supply and sanitation. Nobody should be left out.”

“Climate change, water scarcity and bad management of water resources are all big challenges for the region but, in my view, a bigger challenge is those people who do not have access to basic services. We need to remember that at the end of the day it is about people. Our top priority should be the human being,” Bakir added.