There are a few more international laws that mention the right to safe drinking water such as in Article 28 (2) of CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), Article 24 of UNCRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child) and Article 14 (2) of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women).
Right to water has several dimensions. These include sufficient quantity, being free from hazardous substances, adequate accessibility for all irrespective of their social status or any other condition and so on. Water must be available in sufficient quantities to meet basic needs such as drinking, bathing, cleaning, cooking, and sanitation. It has to be free from all sorts of contamination and more than that, water must be accessible to all in every way. It falls under the government’s responsibility that it would ensure and fulfill its people’s right to water and sanitation and shall not do anything that would interfere with such a right.
In Bangladesh, more than 2 million people do not have access to improved water sources, and 48 million do not have access to improved sanitation
Many countries such as Mexico, Uruguay, Kenya and the Maldives have already enshrined the right to sanitation in their national constitutions. In India, right to water can be claimed through the progressive interpretation of right to food, right to clean environment and right to health, all being within the concept of right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In addition to this, Article 39 (b) can be read, which says that, “The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing…...the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good.”
But Article 39 (b) falls under the directive principles of state policy (DPSPs) which are not justiciable. In Subhash Kumar v State of Bihar (1991), the court precisely mentioned that, right to life under article 21 also includes the right to enjoy pure water. In another case, Francis Coralie Mullin v The Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi (1981), it was observed that the "right to life" includes the "right to live with human dignity as well as the basic necessities of life." And there’s no doubt regarding water having incomparable significance in human life.
In our country, the Appellate Division in Rabia Bhuiyan MP v Ministry of LGRD and others (1999), stated that, ensuring the access of clean and safe water under the municipal laws (The Environment Conservation Act 1995 and the Environmental Conservation Rules 1997) is a government responsibility and anything otherwise shall constitute a contravention of right to life, assured by article 15, 18, 31 and 32 of the Constitution of Bangladesh. Section 3 of the Bangladesh Water Act 2013 gives utmost importance to the right to water and sanitation.
These were all about the right and the grounds upon which it is established. But around the world, there are many issues that come as a barrier while fulfilling this right such as privatisation of water services, lack of proper planning in fresh water management and so on.
In Bangladesh, more than 2 million people do not have access to improved water sources, and 48 million do not have access to improved sanitation. Millions of people in Bangladesh and around the world are having a hard time dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic while also lacking access to safe drinking water. The challenges for Bangladesh in ensuring this right have been its vast population. Moreover, absence of proper enforcement mechanisms, as well as water pollution and poor waste-water management systems also come as obstacles.
Sustainable Development Goal 6 is about “Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” Achieving this goal would require ending open defecation through providing access to adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities for all and while ensuring this, ensuring extra attention to those who are in vulnerable condition. Studies show that women and girls are responsible for water collection in 80 percent of households without access to water on their premises. Water scarcity has been affecting more than one third of the world population. Around 1.7 billion people live in river basins where water use exceeds recharge. It is undoubtedly concerning how much bigger this problem is becoming every day. But do we handle our resources with proper care?
In 2015, BELA (Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association) filed a writ petition on behalf of a community who were being seriously affected through unauthorised ground water depiction. Around 30, 000 residents from four villages in Patiya upazila suffered due to this. Finally, in 2019, the High Court responded by restricting the extraction of groundwater which is the first legal action in Bangladesh under the Water Act 2013 that has marked any area as ‘Water Crisis Prone’. But still there is a long way to go. Apart from having microfinances as economic response to the crisis, Bangladesh’s need for water can be combated through the government's prompt response against ecologically threatening events as well as ensuring zero-waste of water since the more we mishandle our resources, the worse we make it for the future generations.
*The writer is an independent researcher based in Dhaka. She has very recently joined twitter as @MunirahJahanBD and is available at [email protected]