Last Thursday evening, I received an exciting and unexpected phone call.  “Did you hear?  Today the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution that recognizes access to water and sanitation as a fundamental human right!!!  And not just any water—clean, safe, accessible and affordable drinking water!”  The voice belonged to Barbara Olshansky, my human rights law school professor who had spent much of the past year explaining to my classmates and I how the formal recognition of water as a human right, at the international and domestic level, would be an effective means of granting people greater access to water. 

Professor Olshansky, my classmates and I recently travelled to Namibia, where we had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s experts on water access.  I wondered what the news would mean to them; they were not at the UN meeting. In fact, they are probably still waiting in the line where we met.

That’s right, the true experts on the significance and meaning of the human right to access water are those who have been denied it.  They are the men, women, and children who must wait in long lines, every day, just to get the water they need to survive. In most of the informal settlements across Namibia, water is only available at prepaid water control points, and people must have a prepaid water card with sufficient water credits just to fill a water bottle.  They carry containers of all different sizes, but the largest appeared to hold a maximum volume of 20 liters—an amount that would have to supply an entire household’s water supply, for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing.

At the time, I wondered why so many children were in line and not in school, and also about all the people who were missing from the line—the unemployed who could not afford to purchase water credits, and the elderly, ill, and disabled who physically could not walk the long distances to their homes while carrying the water.  What about people with serious illnesses, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, whose survival depended on obtaining a daily supply of fresh water?  The daily tragedy of the water line illustrates the urgency of the human right to access water: because life and human survival depend on water, then people must have water before they can meaningfully enjoy all other rights to life, human dignity, health, food, education, adequate housing, equality and freedom from discrimination.

The recently adopted Resolution calls upon states and international organizations “to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, through international assistance and cooperation, in particular to developing countries, in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.”

If this Resolution is to positively impact the people I met in the water line, they must be able to assert and advocate for their newly recognized right to access water.  In Namibia, the challenging task of explaining the meaning of the human right to access water and sanitation will likely fall in the hands of the Namibia Paralegal Association, a cadre of unpaid volunteers trained by the country’s Legal Assistance Centre to provide legal services and civic education to Namibia’s rural poor and marginalized communities.  Paralegals play perhaps one of the most critical roles in Namibia’s post-apartheid era: teaching their peers what it means to have and assert their “human rights”—words that have no literal translation in Oshiwambo, the predominant indigenous language spoken in Namibia.

While the actual impacts of the Resolution remain to be seen, I’m pleased that this long-awaited and important step has finally been taken, and I am hopeful that the declaration of the human right to access water and sanitation will translate to real change that people in Namibia will see in their lifetimes.