“Leave No One Behind”
Statement by Assistant High Commissioner for Operations, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees George Okoth-Obbo
19 March 1600-1730
PdN Room XVI
Ladies and Gentlemen
Thank you very much for joining us here today for the launch of the UN World Water Development Report and to commemorate World Water Day under the theme “Leaving No One Behind”.
As we do so, our world today has some 25 million refugees, part of a global total of 69 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of conflict, persecution or human rights violations. For them, as for the rest of humanity, access to safe drinking water is fundamental for survival and the sustenance of the most primordial aspects of life. The mantra of SDG 6 target that everyone should have access to safe water within their home or compound extends to them too. But this is not just a mathematical or political target. Access to water without discrimination and regardless of one’s status is a fundamental human right entrenched in international law. International refugee law further calls for special attention to ensure refugees’ access to water and sanitation.
Across the world, States, UNHCR and other humanitarian actors are working through the respective programmes to ensure refugees’ and displaced persons’ access to water and sanitation services. Permit me however to highlight here today that when it comes to access to water by refugees and other forcibly displaced people, their experience can be grim. Chapter 8 of the report we are launching today elaborates the reasons for this, ranging from objective limitations and constraints in water and sanitation services even already for nationals to restrictive legal, policy or administrative practices. But what we find it that at the end of 2018, only 35% of refugees had access to safely managed drinking water supply located on premise. In other words, 65% of the refugees, approximately 12.9 million people, do not have access to clean water within their home. Compare this with the global average according to which 71% of the global population has access to safely managed drinking water services on premise. In terms of sanitation, the situation for refugees is even more compelling, only 17% of whom have access to their own household toilet meaning that 83%, or approximately 16.5 million do not have access to or predictable or managed sanitation services which once again compared starkly with the global average of 39% of the global population having access to their own household toilet or safely managed sanitation services.
Ladies and gentlemen. That no 780 million people worldwide have no access to safe or predictable water sources and estimated 2.5 billion to improved sanitation is a very grave matter indeed. But the fact is that, in these respects refugees are not only being ‘left behind’, very often they are left furthest behind of all.
You will hear shortly from our keynote speaker, Ms. Maya Ghazal, about her personal experiences and the challenges she faced accessing water in Damascus during the Syrian conflict and how this became a driver for her to seek asylum and international protection. Broadly-speaking, however, the consequences for refugees are quite heart-wrenching as overviewed in Chapter 8 of the report which I again invite you to browse. Among others, refugees and displaced persons can be forced to resort to unsafe practices such as open defecation or drinking from unprotected sources. Lack of access to water and toilet facilities are also a major contributing factor for school dropout among children, especially girls upon whom the burden of finding water typically falls and those with disabilities. Women and girls who spend hours searching for water often experience a range of risks including rape and other forms of sexual violence. Tensions and strife within the refugee communities and as between refugee and host communities are often rooted in competition over limited water access.
At UNHCR we believe that water and sanitation are fundamental human rights without which survival itself and the fruitful enjoyment of all other human rights are threatened. The right to water and sanitation is therefore core to UNHCR’s international protection mandate and plays a central role in realizing permanent solutions for refugees. Entrenching refugees’ access to water is a crucial of our programming and operational activities. In 2018 UNHCR expended USD117 million on WASH programming across 59 countries on WASH activities. But this represents only 3% of our global budget and allows us to cover the needs of only about 40% of refugees and 20% of IDPs living in camps. There is unfortunately only limited resources to improve water and sanitation for the other 60% of refugees and 80% of IDPs co-hosted in urban and rural communities.
Goal 6 of the SDGs aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” by the year 2030. Let me reiterate our stand that “for all” unequivocally includes all refugees, asylum seekers, stateless people and internally displaced persons or, as the slogan of the 2019 World Water Day campaign affirms: “Whoever you are, wherever you are, water is your human right.”
Chapter 8 once again spells out the measures, actions and steps that are necessary to ensure that refugees are not ‘left behind’ when it comes to access to safe drinking water. Let me in concluding, highlight the following:
- The imperative to remove legal and social discrimination and promote equality of access to basic water and sanitation services for both refugees and host communities.
- The inclusion of refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons and internally displaced people in national development and financing plans for WASH services.
- The importance of allowing refugees the right to work and pay for water supply and sanitation services.
Thank you very much for listening to me.