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Environment: Rio+20 Conference

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 June 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to promote the inclusion in the outcome document of the Rio+20 conference of a commitment to the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.

My Lords, the UK has long recognised the right to water as an element of the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living and is now in a position to support the inclusion of commitments to the right both to safe and clean drinking water and to sanitation as a human right in the Rio+20 outcome document.

I thank the Minister for his response to my Question. The focus from the Government is very much on water and there is little concentration on the importance of sanitation, but it is indispensible to public health and vital for human development. Does the Minister recognise that the lack of sanitation is a major cause of diarrhoeal disease, which is the second biggest killer of the world’s children? Against this background, will he tell me when the Government will conclude their exceedingly long review, join the majority of OECD countries, really acknowledge that sanitation is a human right and, at last, ratify the UN right to sanitation?

My Lords, I thought that that was what I had just said. The right to sanitation is not specifically provided for under any of the international human rights treaties. The UK has therefore waited until it was satisfied that there was sufficient basis in international law to recognise the right without undermining the international human rights framework. While placing a high priority on improving sanitation in development terms, the UK has, I think understandably, been cautious about recognising new rights under international law—as, presumably, were the previous Government, who, while recognising the right to water in 2006, did not recognise the right to sanitation.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply to the noble Baroness. Of course, we realise that every fifteen seconds a child will die of cholera. Emergencies arise and we need to respond to needs in various places. What do the Government have by way of a supply of water purification units and tablets in order to meet any emergency demands?

I cannot give my noble friend a specific answer now, but I will write to him. On a more general basis, on 20 April, at the Sanitation and Water for All high-level meeting, the Secretary of State for International Development committed to doubling the UK’s ambitions on water, sanitation and hygiene to reach at least 60 million people by 2015.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an ambassador for WaterAid and acknowledge that the Rio+20 conference in June followed the Johannesburg summit at which world leaders agreed that the current millennium development goals on sanitation remain substantially off-track in terms of global development targets. Can the Minister kindly give some further information on what the United Kingdom is doing to help to reverse this neglect, which kills more than 700,000 people a year, 90% of them children under five?

There are a number of questions within the right reverend Prelate’s question. He referred to the millennium development goals. We are committed to those goals. There is also the question, of course, of the link between them and the sustainable development goals. It is important to look to the framework post-2015, to which we are paying a great deal of attention.

My Lords, access to sanitation and clean water is obviously a crucial health issue. Does the Minister agree that it is also an important issue in regard to that great driver of development, girls’ education? Girls who have to spend their time going long distances to collect water, or girls who do not go to school because there is no adequate sanitation there, are disempowered and debarred from access to that crucial education.

My Lords, that is a very important point. One of the key principles of the Government’s response to the global crisis of water and sanitation is to increase our focus on women and girls. Women are more likely to fetch water and are at risk without proper sanitation facilities. By improving access to water and sanitation, we will get more girls and women into school and keep them there.

Does the Minister agree that one of the problems in Africa, where I work, is that when people dig a well they often stop the moment they reach water? The essential thing is to go on several feet deeper. The well will then survive. It is very important to train people to keep the well in good working order.

I quite agree with my noble friend. Training is at least as important as the dropping of the well in the first place.

Does my noble friend agree that water is already, and will increasingly become, the most valuable commodity that the world has and that its conservation is vital?

My Lords, the Government made a commitment in the Queen’s Speech to giving 0.7% of gross national income to the developing world. Have they planned to legislate for an ongoing commitment to give 0.7% of gross national income to the developing world?