Launch a national inquiry on compliance with & violations of the human right to water

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We, the undersigned, strongly demand the Philippine Commission on Human Rights to exercise immediately its power to launch a national inquiry on State and non-State actors compliance with and violations of the human right to water and sanitation.

Section 18(1) Article XIII of the Philippines Constitution, gives the CHR the power to investigate on its own, without waiting for any complaint from any party, human rights violations. Meanwhile, Section 18(7) Article XIII of the Philippines Constitution, gives the CHR the power to monitor Philippine government’s compliance with international treaty obligations on human rights.

The compliance with and violations of the right to water and sanitation of both State actors and non-State actors must be investigated in that national inquiry.  While State actors are the ones conventionally recognised as accountable for any violation of human rights, non-State actors, such as private companies, can and must be held accountable as well.

In his 2018 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Léo Heller, stressed this point on the subject of who can be held accountable for violations of the right to water and sanitation: “Actors other than States that are accountable in the water and sanitation sector include formal and informal service providers, which range from private companies, NGOs and community-based organizations to individuals involved in service provision. They also include business enterprises that may have an impact on the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation in the course of their operation. Public or private companies may positively influence the development of infrastructure and increase access to public services. However, they can also commit serious human rights abuses or be complicit in their violation.”

Why the CHR must urgently act on its own regarding this issue?

he issue needs urgent action from the CHR because water is fundamental to the dignity of all and the human right to water is a recognised prerequisite for the realisation of other human rights. The urgency of the situation is due to the fact that, to use the words of the United Nations (UN), “water is the essence of life” and because of that “safe drinking water and sanitation are indispensable to sustain life and health, and fundamental to the dignity of all.”  (emphasis added)

The fundamental significance of the right to water in the fulfilment of other human rights has been stressed by different bodies of the United Nations, as well as by the CHR itself.

  • In its General Comment No. 15 (2002), the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) stressed that: “Water is a limited natural resource and a public good fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” (emphasis added)
  • The General Comment of the CESCR was actually echoed by the CHR in its November 2009 Human Rights Advisory on “The Right to Water in Light of the Privatization of the Angat Hydro-Electric Power Plant.” Besides echoing what the CESCR said, the CHR maintained that the “right to water is…fundamental…Hence all actions that necessarily affects, directly or indirectly, this right must be construed strictly in its favor.”  (emphasis added)
  • In a resolution it adopted on 28 July 2010, the UN General Assembly recognised that “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” (emphasis added)

In its August 2019 decision on the petitions of water concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water, and the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) against some government bodies, the Supreme Court of the Philippines acknowledged that “the state of Philippines’s water supply and water sanitation appear hopelessly grim” (emphasis added). Ranking of the Environmental Performance Index confirms this assessment.

Released every two years, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is produced by Yale University and Columbia University in partnership with the World Economic Forum. Among different categories, the EPI ranks countries Drinking Water. Drinking water is measured  “as the proportion of a country’s population exposed to health risks from their access to drinking water, defined by the primary water source used by households and the household water treatment, or the treatment that happens at the point of water collection.”

In the 2018 EPI, in terms of Drinking Water, the Philippines ranked 113 out of 180 countries.

Given this, the dire state of water supply and sanitation in the country means that the realisation of other human rights is in peril as the prerequisite for their fulfilment, i.e. the human right to water, is in most probably being violated by both State and non-State actors. Therefore, the CHR must urgently act on its own on this issue as violations of the right to water and sanitation have serious repercussions on the lives and dignity of millions of Filipinos.

What should the CHR do?

Among other actions the CHR deems necessary to promote and safeguard the human right to water and sanitation, this urgent call to action recommends the following:

1. Launch a national inquiry on compliance with and violations of the human right to water and sanitation of both State and non-State actors

This national inquiry is akin to the “National Inquiry on Climate Change”  which the CHR started in March 2018. This national inquiry is a response to a petition in 2015 signed by 13 environmental groups and 20 individual asking the CHR to investigate 50 “Carbon Majors” fossil fuel companies and cement producers. Among other aims, the national inquiry intends to “determine if climate change has an effect on Filipinos’ fundamental human rights.”

Regarding the human right to water and sanitation, the CHR must act on its own rather than wait for a petition as this human right is a prerequisite for the fulfilment of other human rights. And unlike the issue of climate change, this right has an established parameters of what counts as a violation as determined in “General Comment No. 15: The right to water” of the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

This issue is as urgent as climate change as water is indispensable to people’s lives, and therefore to their dignity as human beings.

2. Investigate serious violations of the human right to water and sanitation committed by water concessionaires Manila Water and Maynilad

In the August 2019 decision of the Supreme Court, Manila Water and Maynilad were found guilty of violating Section 8 of the Clean Water, which mandates them to provide, install, or maintain sufficient Waste Water Treatment Facilities. This already indicates that these two water concessionaires violated the sanitation aspect of the human right to water and sanitation.

However, this is not their only probable violation of the human right to water and sanitation.

From October 2006 to July 2007, Homer C. Genuino and Maria Pythias B. Espino conducted the first widespread independent scientific study of potentially carcinogenic bromate concentration in tap water in Metro Manila. Their study found that found an average contamination of 66 microgram per liter, which is about seven times higher than the maximum level (10 microgram per liter) set by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality.

This study took water samples were taken from:

- 11 Manila Water distrubution lines (eastern part QC, northern part Caloocan, Manila downtown, Marikina, Pasig, Taguig, Pateros, Makati, Mandaluyong, San Juan, Muntinlupa)

- 10 Maynilad distribution lines (Manila, Valenzuela, Malabon, Navotas, Pasay, Paranaque, Las Pinas, Muntinlupa, West Quezon City, southern part Caloocan).

The study was published in April 2012, Volume 62, Issue 3 of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. The copy of this research can be downloaded from this dropbox link.

According in General Comment 15 (2002), the UN CESCR, to comply with the right to water, “the water required for each personal or domestic use must be safe, therefore free from micro-organisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person’s health.” The UN CESCR referred to Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality as a basis of safe drinking water that does not constitute a threat to a person’s health.

Genuino and Espino’s study found a very alarming amount of potentially carcinogenic bromate in the drinking water supplied by Maynilad and Manila Water. This findings constitutes a threat to the health of millions of Filipinos, which they unknowingly experienced for at least nine months. The magnitude and impact of this findings strongly indicates a highly probable serious violations of the right to water and sanitation by Maynilad and Manila Water