The Human Right(s) to Water and Sanitation: History, Meaning and the Controversy Over Privatization

61 Pages Posted: 3 Jan 2013 Last revised: 16 Oct 2013

Date Written: April 13, 2013


The recognition by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council in 2010 of a human right to safe drinking water and sanitation has propelled awareness of the global water and sanitation crisis to new heights, while also raising a host of challenging issues. The framing of water and sanitation as a human right can be understood as a response to global water service trends that have increasingly emphasized economic efficiency, environmental sustainability, and privatization. The history of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) sheds light on some of the controversies around the scope and meaning of the human right to water and sanitation, including the politics of privatization. Although international human rights law has historically been neutral with respect to economic models of service provision, human rights principles are relevant as to how to engage the private sector in the provision of basic services. Three key themes that highlight the tensions between human rights and private sector involvement in the water and sanitation sectors are explored: financial sustainability, efficiency, and dispute resolution. Human rights principles are guideposts for regulation, monitoring, and oversight, which are critical elements when the private sector is involved in the delivery of water and sanitation services.

Keywords: human right to water, sanitation, privatization, ICESCR

Suggested Citation

Murthy, Sharmila, The Human Right(s) to Water and Sanitation: History, Meaning and the Controversy Over Privatization (April 13, 2013). Berkeley Journal of International Law (BJIL), Vol. 31, No. 1, 2013, Available at SSRN:

Sharmila Murthy (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States

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