Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

The Human Rights to Water and Sanitation

Léo Heller

Cambridge University Press



Léo Heller was the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation for the United Nations (UN) between 2014 and 2020. Informed by knowledge and experience from these six years, Heller’s book Human Rights to Water and Sanitation (2022) brings together theory and praxis from around the globe to provide a rich resource that analyses the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation (HRtWS) through the conceptual framework of drivers, policies and people. Heller writes to broaden our interpretation and understanding of HRtWS, and aims to answer a seminal question: How can the water and sanitation sector transform itself, and incorporate and contribute more to the realization of the Human Rights Framework?

Human Rights to Water and Sanitation is made up of four parts and a total thirteen chapters, excluding the Introduction and Conclusion. Heller has written this book in such a way that chapters can be read independently or sequentially as a whole. This creates a valuable resource for academia, and specialists and professionals of human rights and water and sanitation among others. It also offers the reader an opportunity to share in a vision of HRtWS that, whilst being guided by political and theoretical perspectives, is shaped by indignation against inequality and social injustice in the access to water and sanitation services.

Part One provides an integrated view of the fundamentals of HRtWS; parts Two to Four seek to provide greater generality to the three dimensions of drivers, policies and people and consist of chapters that are largely thematic reports developed during Heller’s time as Special Rapporteur for the UN.

In Part One (chapters 1 to 3), Heller tracks the genesis and emergence of HRtWS and zooms in to identify fundamentals that underpin, through the intersection of many vectors, the realization and violation of HRtWS. He also provides a comprehensive understanding of the topic and creates a theoretical-conceptual basis to address drivers, policies and people within HRtWS.  Furthermore, he faces the views that challenge HRtWS and considers what positive role they play for the improvement of human rights.

Part Two (chapters 4 to 6) looks at drivers that shape public policies and the framework for inclusion and exclusion of individuals and population groups in access to services. Heller explores why rights within legal frameworks do not always translate into reality, and what conditions (drivers) either hinder or favour their implementation. Chapters herein discuss neoliberalism, effects of business and megaprojects, and development cooperation or aid as drivers within HRtWS.

Part Three (chapters 7 to 10) examines public policy as a tool used by government to transform vision into reality and identifies the frequent mismatch between goals and means to deliver their effectiveness. Heller explores regulation (as a structure for policy implementation), accountability (as a principal human right and also means of realizing other rights), economic affordability, and progressive realization of the HRtWS (in other words increasing access to services and also promoting equal access).

Part Four (chapters 11 to 13) looks at people and highlights the diversity of needs, capabilities and opportunities to gain access and maintain access over time among people. Here Heller identifies the political-institutional bottlenecks and population groups that deserve a particularly broadened focus. He also explores the gender dimension within HRtWS, forcibly displaced persons (such as refugees or migrants), and people who spend the majority of their time in public spaces.

Heller succinctly draws together the elements of his analytical framework in the Conclusion to consolidate our understanding of past and current drivers, policies and people that influence or are affected by the realization or violation of HRtWS. Aware of the inherent risks of projecting into the future, Heller concludes by considering how to expand and improve the application of HRtWS and thus contribute to its progressive realization.   

Book Note prepared by Hannah Keren Lee.

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