Position Paper on «Climate Change and the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation»

A position paper on climate change by UNHCR’s Independent Expert on human rights, water and sanitation, Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, has recently become available. The paper examines the legal obligations concerning the rights to water and to sanitation, as well as those arising from the climate change regime. It further outlines the impact of climate change on the enjoyment of the rights to water and to sanitation, and offers recommendations on integrating human rights into climate change negotiations.


acrobat_icon Position Paper on «Climate Change and the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation»


Climate change presents a serious obstacle to the realisation of the rights to water and sanitation. Water is a key medium through which climate change impacts upon human populations and ecosystems, particularly due to predicted changes in water quality and quantity. The impacts of climate change need to be seen in light of its direct effects on water resources as well as its indirect influence on other external drivers of change, in particular increasing population pressures and changing consumption patterns. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that in many regions of the globe, changes to the supply and quality of freshwater resources resulting from climate change may imperil sustainable development, poverty reduction and child mortality goals.

The rights to water and to sanitation impose specific legal obligations, which climate change policy responses must take into account. The human right to water means that everyone has the right to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses, without discrimination. The right to sanitation means that everyone has the right to access to sanitation which is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable, and that provides privacy and ensures dignity, without discrimination. As with all socioeconomic rights, the rights to water and sanitation entail obligations of both an immediate and progressive kind. While human rights duties are owed principally by the State to individuals within that State’s own territory, there is increasing support in international law for duties of States to respect and protect human rights in third countries (including qualified duties to ensure that transnational corporations do not violate human rights elsewhere), and cooperate to support the realisation of human rights globally.


Improved water resource management should be a central component of climate change adaptation strategies. It will also be a vital consideration for many mitigation activities, including hydropower, agriculture and forestry projects. The importance of water and sanitation for successful climate mitigation and adaptation, and the rights to water and sanitation more specifically, must be properly and adequately reflected within the agreement to be reached by the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP-16) in Mexico in December 2010 as well as in processes beyond the COP 16. To this end, this paper provides a range of recommendations to guide negotiators, States and other policy-makers in the climate negotiations and in climate policy more broadly.