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Fiocruz Minas researches debate human right to water


Keila Maia (Fiocruz Minas)


Concern over the situation of some 900 million people living without clean water has led the United Nations to declare, in July 2010, that access to water and sanitary sewage is an essential human right. At the time, a resolution supported by 122 countries, including Brazil, included a series of important conditions to fulfil this right, emphasizing that it was necessary to go beyond infrastructure. This need is being confirmed by the Fiocruz Minas studies recently published, which showed that sanitary facilities, although fundamental, are not enough to fulfill these rights. Researchers also point out that not complying with this right violates other rights.

One of the published articles, titled Infrastructure is a necessary but insufficient condition to eliminate inequalities in access to water: Research of a rural Community intervention in Northeast Brazil, assessed the conditions to access water and inequalities generated by the unavailability of the water resource, before and after the construction of a water supply system in the community of Cristais, located in a semi-arid region in the state of Ceará. The study was based on three main aspects to measure whether the human right to water has been guaranteed: quality, physical accessibility and availability of water.

To assess it, researchers collected sociodemographic data and the ways in which water was accessed in two phases: in May 2014, before sanitary facilities were installed - when water was accessed at public sources such as public taps, fountains and private tanks -; and in May and June 2015, five months after work had been completed, when water was available inside homes. The researchers also assessed the quality of the water provided by testing for E. coli, a bacterium which presence indicates fecal contamination. The results showed that the infrastructure works were not enough in guaranteeing that the communitiy had drinking water to use.

"The construction of a sanitary system made it possible for almost all those people interviewed to have access to running water. However, 70% of families continued to use other sources of water, especially rainwater, to drink and prepare food. This is probably due to the non-acceptance of chlorinated water provided through the water supply system, and also because rainwater is considered to be the highest quality for these communities”, explains researcher Bernardo Aleixo from the Public Policy Group for Human Rights. Although people's perception of rainwater is positive, the study showed that E. coli bacteria was detected in most samples collected from rainwater tanks.

Regarding the availability, which was assessed based on the variable “per capita consumption per day” (Ipcd), the survey pointed out that, after the sanitary facilities, consumption increased significantly. Most households who spent under 20 Ipcd migrated to above 50 Ipcd, going from a situation of high to low health risk, according to World Health Organization (WHO) standards. It was also found that households without internal pipes were among those using less water, which allows them to have taps at demand points such as bathrooms and kitchens.

Regarding the physical accessibility, measured according to the time spent to collect water, it was found that, after the sanitary works, travelling to get access to water decreased. However, many families use other sources of water, which caused them still to travel. "The results show that other measures are critical in providing good quality water. In this specific case, educational measures could also be carried out, showing the importance of treating water collected from other sources and also clarifying the use of chlorinated water. To ensure the right of access to quality water, the cultural aspects of each community need to be considered”, Aleixo said.

Another article, by Fiocruz Minas researchers, assessed the access to sanitation in an urban public school, located on the outskirts of a city in the south of Bahia. Titled Having a toilet is not enough: the limitations in fulfilling the human rights to water and sanitation in a municipal school in Bahia, Brazil the research listened to the school community to see if the conditions offered were in line with the human rights perspective.

To carry out the analysis, the researchers went to the school between October and December 2016, during which time they observed the routines within the institution. They also held four focus groups, in which 39 students took part, as well as individual interviews with the school principal and deputy principal.

During the statements, students said that there were problems relating to the availability of toilets, an issue that mainly affects girls. The students also stated that the facilities are not suitable for people with disabilities. "The number of toilets is not sufficient for the number of students. This was worse for girls, who, although being a majority, have the same number of toilets as the boys. Some said that during the menstrual period they avoid using the toilet”, said the researcher Édila Coswosk from the Public Policy Group on Human Rights.

A lack of privacy is another point highlighted by students as problematic. According to reports, many doors have been damaged and students feel insecure when using toilets. Another aspect that was mentioned a great deal was that bathrooms get dirty very often, as well as lacking toilet paper and soap to wash their hands. "These situations cause students to avoid going to the toilets, which can lead to health problems. This shows that guaranteeing access to the human rights in access to water and sanitary sewage in schools is a complex problem, which is not limited to providing a toilet”, Coswosk said. According to the researcher, this issue of invisibility needs to be taken and included in everyday practices, involving different actors and interfaces. "School management needs support, through public policies and resources, to create and maintain environments that support health. In addition, it is necessary to reflect and develop studies that seek to change attitudes that predispose people to illness; and this should be done with the entire school community getting involved”, she said.

The relationship between rights is also a subject of research, and is addressed in the article Human rights’ interdependence and indivisibility: A glance over the human rights to water and sanitation, in which the researchers discuss the results of a study carried out in Belo Horizonte, focusing on the homeless population. Through a qualitative analysis, it was found that due to the precarious access to water and sanitary sewage, this public ends up being excluded from other spheres of social and economic life.

The research, conducted from May to July 2016, involved non-participant observation and interviews with 24 people living in the center of Belo Horizonte. According to researcher Priscila Neves, from the Public Policy and Human Rights Group, interviewees said that they felt embarrassed for being dirty and often they do not have access to health services and cannot attended educational institutions because they could not take a shower. "Some people said that when seeking health services, they are told to have a shower and, then, to seek care, which is not always possible. Those attending Youth and Adult Education (EJA) stated that they missed classes when they could not find some where to take a shower. Just analyzing this situation, we can already see that this violates the right to water and infringes two other rights: education and health", the researcher said.

Due to the right to water being violated, the right to privacy is also not complied with. According to the researcher, a large part of the homeless population have to bathe in public fountains and plazas. For women and the LGBT population, the situation can be even more complicated because, in addition to having intimacy invaded, they suffer harassment and physical and sexual violence.

Another point highlighted by the interviewees is that, because they are homeless, they often have their belongings and documents stolen or taken by the police, thereby losing the right to exercise their civil and political rights. "If they no longer have their political rights, how will they participate in the decision-making process?”, asks the researcher. "The study reinforces what many other authors have been pointing out: human rights must be approached from an indivisibility and interdependence point of view, since not complying with one impacts a violation of another”, she concludes.

According to researcher Léo Heller, who is also a UN special rapporteur on human rights to water and sanitation, the research indicates that "the most vulnerable populations are particularly affected when the state does not fulfill its role of respecting and promoting human rights". According to Heller, all three articles also show, in a unique manner, how the interdependence between human rights is expressed in these situations, causing existing inequalities to be heightened.

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