(Photo: Detroit Water Brigade)

Access to water is a human right

By M Ravi

In modern day Singapore, there are still people who cannot afford to pay their utilities bill, which results in the termination of their water/electricity supply by the Public Utilities Board (PUB) and SP Services.

I came across a few cases when I was doing pro bono work. Most of these people rely heavily on financial assistance from the Community Development Councils (CDC) to assist them. Before the water supply is cut, the electricity supply is terminated.

These families have to live in darkness and suffer intense distress until they can find a way out. With no electricity in the house, one may even have to grope in darkness, but the real problem lies in their inability to use basic household appliances like the fridge, rice cooker or even charge their phones – their only possible means of communication. The cutting of the water supply also leaves families unable to cook, clean or shower in their homes.

Is this practice by PUB and SP Services legal under International Law? The answer is an unequivocal no! Such actions breach Singapore’s international treaty obligations under the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Singapore is a signatory to these treaties.

It has been recognised by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that water is a basic human right and that every individual is entitled with the right “to sufficient , safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses” [General Comment No 15 : The Right to Water (Articles 11 and 12 of the Covenant), Paragraph 2].

This right to water is also part of the right to an adequate standard of living. These obligations require States to ensure everyone’s access to a sufficient amount of safe drinking water for personal and domestic uses. Water, in that regard, is defined as water for drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, and personal as well as household hygiene.

According to the World Health Organisation, each person needs between 50 to 100 litres of water per day to ensure that most basic needs are met and few heath concerns arise. WHO has highlighted that the minimum amount of 20 to 25 litres of water per person (per day) would raise health concerns as it is insufficient to meet basic hygiene and consumption requirements. Hence, access to even a minimum amount of water per day as recommended by the WHO would not be met should the water supply to a household be disconnected.

Our Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, mentioned in his speech at the official opening of Tuaspring Desalination Plant in September 2013 that “Singapore is in a privileged, comfortable, secure position” in relation to clean drinking water and that “Singaporeans enjoy a clean and reliable water supply…”

However, it is certainly not the case for those whose water supply is terminated.

Additionally, articles 24 and 27 of The Convention on the Rights of the Child direct that “children have the right to good quality health care, clean water” and that children have the right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical  and mental needs.

The government should help families who cannot afford to provide this. Whatever issues involving the adults and their inability to pay, it’s not proper to make children suffer as a consequence.

Article 14(2) of CEDAW states “State parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination … to enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply…” The United Nations has stated that no individual or group should be denied access to safe drinking water because they cannot afford to pay*.

The UN CESCR’s general comment No.15 also highlights that in order to ensure that water is affordable, states should carry out necessary measures such as appropriate pricing policies which include free or low-cost water.

The prime minister in the aforementioned speech boldly proclaimed that “nobody is unable to afford the water which they need.”

Perhaps he would like to meet families and households affected by the very policies that his state agencies employ.

But let me not jump the gun and accuse the prime minister of failure and indifference. He probably doesn’t know and certainly his underlings are not bringing it to his attention.

Such issues that affect basic living standards have to be highlighted so as to ensure that those whom we have elected to serve are fully aware of the problems and are taking steps to rectify it.

Why sign international treaties and treat them with impunity?

Only when those living at the bottom rung and fringes of society are properly taken of and have the same opportunities can we proudly proclaim that Singapore is a cohesive and inclusive society.

I hope with this article to raise awareness and urge those who suffer in silence (or know of those who do) to come forward and we, through discussions, can highlight the issue and ensure they get the assistance they need.

* (UN Fact Sheeet No. 35 – The Right to Water, Page 10)