On 23 March 2023, End Water Poverty, the Water Integrity Network (WIN) and our partners hosted Hearing the Unheard: Human Rights to Water and Sanitation, an official side event to the UN 2023 Water Conference which amplified the voices of grassroots communities fighting for water and sanitation.
We wanted to ensure that the voices of communities were heard at the conference. As UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation Pedro Arrojo-Agudo said at the event: “I dream that events like this one, instead of being side events outside the UN building, will be central events at the UN headquarters … with social movements and water defenders occupying the centre with access to the microphone and States listening attentively.” This side event and digital campaign are a first step towards this broader goal.
It’s not about leaving no one behind, it’s about putting rights-holders in front
#HearingTheUnheardHRWS is not just an event. It’s a digital campaign that has a life beyond the UN Water Conference. It’s also a political statement, and a powerful evidence base. Over the month of March, we gathered testimonies on the lived experience, agency, responses from government and demands of 54 different groups in 18 countries; a total of at least 114 video submissions so far.
This event and its campaign is not about leaving no one behind, it’s about putting them in front. It’s about listening. It’s also about committing. And it’s about promoting accountability.
Those who were able to attend the side event in person, were able to do so because of some degree of privilege. And that meant that they had access to power. The other side of the coin is that, despite an explicitly inclusive vision, the participation of many grassroots and marginalised people had been prevented by travel costs, visa requirements, and the accreditation criteria and protocols of UN Water itself. In organising the #HearingTheUnheardHRWS event we weren’t able to bring various grassroots speakers because they were unable to get visas which is why we had two empty chairs at the event – they represented the speakers who could not be there to speak in person.
It is not an accident that some people are not at the table. It is not an unfortunate set of circumstances. It is structural and it is deliberate. We have created a world in which, according to Oxfam, over the last decade, the richest 1% have captured around half of all new wealth.
Structural interventions are needed if we want to change this, if we really want to build a world in which everyone has access to safe water and sanitation, a world in which no-one, not a single woman, man, or child, has to battle for safe drinking water or safe and dignified sanitation.
It is grassroots communities and water rights defenders like the ones we heard from who are on the frontline: engaging their politicians, standing up to police and corporate power, defending rivers, lakes and groundwater. Communities are the agents of change. They activate legal obligations and political promises. We need to find meaningful ways to back these communities and water rights defenders standing up for their rights because that is where rights realisation is happening.
Alana Potter (End Water Poverty) and
Barbara Schreiner (Water Integrity Network)
Hearing the Unheard’s highlights
The #HearingTheUnheardHRWS event’s programme was packed with incredible speakers, including grassroots water rights defenders Patricia Eduviges Silva Lópezand Migdalia Girón; state representatives Lord Zac Goldsmith, Isabella de Roldáoand Risimati Mathye; and high profile representatives from the UN Rio Hada and Pedro Arrojo-Agudo.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Rio Hada framed the event by underscoring that access to water and sanitation are “game-changing rights” that are “indispensable to a healthy planet and sustainable development”. Yet, despite being formally recognised as human rights, billions of people worldwide live without access to safe drinking water and dignified sanitation as corporations consume and contaminate water with impunity, access remains deeply rooted in discrimination and inequality, and local human rights defenders are paying with their very lives for their resistance to human rights abuses. “This is not merely a tragedy,” Hada said, “it’s a human rights failure.” Hada committed to amplifying the demands from grassroots communities because the only way to fulfil these rights is “to listen and give voices to ordinary people”.
Patricia Eduviges Silva López, an indigenous community activist and nurse from Mixteca Oaxaqueña, México, shared how advocating for women to have a more equitable voice in decision-making in her local community enabled them to advance their access to safe water through rain-water catchment. “Once the community recognised women’s right to participate in decision-making,” she said, “we were able to work together to implement the rain catchment project. We realised we needed each other.”
Guatemalan human rights defender Migdalia Girón, explained how women living in rural areas in Latin America struggle to access water with many spending hours a day hauling water, sacrificing their time, health and opportunities. “I bring their voices here,” she said.
Girón urged the international community to offer more financial support directly to rural communities who “want to be part of the solution” and to speak out in support of laws and policies that bring women into decision-making processes. “Water is a right and common good passed down to us,” she said. “We must protect it and pass it on to future generations.”
The United Kingdom’s Minister of State for Overseas Territories, Commonwealth, Energy, Climate and Environment Zac Goldsmith said that those most affected by a lack of access to water and sanitation, including women, girls and indigenous groups, are “a vital part of the solution” and argued for a fundamental shift to turn the targets and commitments made at the conference into action. The Vice-Mayor of Recife Isabella de Roldáo similarly emphasised the importance of centring those most affected by a lack of water and sanitation in debates about the future. The South African Deputy Director-General of Water and Sanitation Risimati Mathye spoke about the challenges and opportunities presented by the right to water which is enshrined in the South African Constitution and the need for strong institutions. He strongly endorsed the call to centre rights-holders in the provision of water and sanitation services.
Inputs from Bobby Whitfield, CEO and Chair of the Liberia National Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Commission, and Jefferson Koijee, Mayor of Monrovia, demonstrated the Government of Liberia’s political leadership of human centred WASH services and its commitment to supporting marginalised groups.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation Pedro Arrojo-Agudo’s address began with a provocation: “We don’t get what we don’t fight for and we don’t fight for what we don’t dream.” He said that the UN 2023 Water Conference has made him optimistic, not because of specific commitments from States, but because of he believes that we are at the starting point of creating the UN that we all need. A UN that engages rights-holders and human rights defenders in dialogue, that harnesses the energy and legitimacy that human rights defenders bring. “Another world is possible,” he said, “because it is necessary.”
Testimonies from grassroots communities
In addition to live testimony from water rights defenders, the event included video testimony from seven grassroots communities fighting for their rights to water and sanitation. Watch these videos here:
We don’t get what we don’t fight for
As the UN Special Rapporteur said in his input at the side event: “We don’t get what we don’t fight for, and we don’t fight for what we don’t dream”.
We must keep up the fight with all the passion that has been shown during the #HearingTheUnheardHRWS side event and campaign, so that rights-holders can take centre stage. We must use our power, whatever the different nature of that power is, to take the fight forward beyond this conference.
- A special thanks to the organisations who facilitated the videos and live testimony presented in the side event: Centre for Law and Justice (CLJ), Coalition Eau, FANMex, Guardianes del Agua, La Goutte d’Eau, Matabeleland Institute of Human Rights (MIHR), Mogote Colorado, MUDEM A.C. and ONGAWA.
- We’re grateful to the Water Integrity Network (WIN) for chairing the event and working alongside us to organise it; to our partners who contributed to the event costs (Coalition Eau; Franciscans International; ONGAWA; Simavi; Water Witness and WIN); to our co-convenors and speakers; to the UN Human Rights Office, and to the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation, to whom we had the honour of presenting the Water Justice Manifesto last week.
- Special thanks to the Department of Water and Sanitation in South Africa and the Government of Liberia for endorsing and sending high level speakers and delegates to join us; to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office of the Government of the United Kingdom, to WaterAid for hosting and supporting End Water Poverty, and to the Government of the Netherlands for funding support to make this event possible.