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41 Countries Refuse to Vote on U.N.’s Resolution Making Water a Basic Human Right

The United Nation’s General Assembly voted Wednesday to make water a basic human right. But 41 countries, including the United States, opted out, saying they were waiting for more data.

What isn’t in question is the lack of clean water and sanitation for millions around the globe. According to the U.N., 884 million people lack a safe source of drinking water and 2.6 billion people don’t have basic sanitation facilities.

Photograph by Tasha Eichenseher


Bolivia, which has seen its fair share of conflicts over water, introduced the non-binding resolution. Passing with 122 votes, the resolution calls for increased efforts to provide drinking water and sanitation for all.

This obligation could fall to developed and wealthier countries, many of which abstained from the vote. The U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia were among those countries, citing their desire to wait for an independent report commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council due next year on countries’ obligations related to water and sanitation development work.

According to reports in Reuters, British U.N. delegate Nicola Freedman said that the U.K. “does not believe that there exists at present sufficient legal basis under international law to either declare or recognize water or sanitation as free-standing human rights.”

There has been a strong, years-long advocacy movement, often led by author and Blue Planet Project Founder Maude Barlow, to declare water as a basic human right. Protests over the issue have sprouted up everywhere from World Water Week in Turkey to in front of Ecuador’s National Assembly building.

“Our network of allies has been fighting for over 10 years towards achieving a legally binding recognition of the human right to water at the U.N.,” Barlow said in a joint statement with Food and Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “While this is a non-binding resolution, it is a crucial first step to providing clean water and sanitation to all.”

In a statement issued before the vote, Barlow said: “It’s time politics caught up with reality.”

The U.N. vote was supported by private water companies and operators as well–many of the same companies that Barlow has targeted in her campaigns against water privatization.

“For private water operators, this global recognition is an important milestone,” wrote Gerard Payen, President of AquaFed, an international coalition of water companies, in a statement about the vote. “Our members and our Federation have been working actively with the United Nations and many other stakeholders for a decade to ensure that the Right to Water and Sanitation is recognized, that it is practical and can be implemented. The UN member states have now to work on the implementation of this human right. They have to empower appropriate public authorities, clarify their obligations and make sure that they mandate capable field operators to make this right effective for people.”

According to AquaFed, private suppliers have provided new water and sanitation connections to nearly 25 million people over the last 15 years.

Other countries that abstained include Botswana, Denmark, Ethiopia, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Sweden, and Turkey.

Read more in the U.N. press release.

More from National Geographic:

World Water Day Focus on Global Sewage Flood

Lack of Toilets “One of the Biggest Scandals in the Last 50 Years”


Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E,The Environmental Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.

More blog posts by Tasha Eichenseher

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]