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On the Duty of the Government to Safeguard the Right to Water
May 03,2017   By:CSHRS

On the Duty of the Government to Safeguard the Right to Water

                 SUN Meng, WANG Zhongyang *

Abstract: The right to water is an emerging sort of human rights aiming to protect the right to water indispensable for the survival and development of individuals. From the perspective of International Human Rights Law, the paper analyzes the standards stipulating the international obligations to safeguard the right to water, inspects the state quo of the protection of the right to water in China and demonstrates the lawful suggestions to safeguard the right to water.

Key words: the right to water; the duty of government; the human rights law; China

Water is the source of life, the material basis of human reproduction and the most essential demand of individual survival. Nonetheless, safe and drinkable fresh water is precious due to climatic changes and environmental contamination, etc. According to The Progress of Drinking Water and Health Facilities: Specific Emphasis on Health Facilities (2008) by United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide 884 million people cannot have access to standard fresh water.1 The shortage of safe water has led to illness, poverty and inequality. It is an indisputable fact that large and medium-sized cities in China suffer from water shortage or poor water quality. Some Chinese rural residents drinking untreated water for long may have stomach disease and even cancer, which will impair people’s right to health and life. For this reason, the access to safe and sufficient drinking water is an inalienable human right deserving legal protection. The domestic research on the right to water, as a newly-emerged kind of human right, is scarce at present and the related legal system needs urgent perfection. The paper aims at discovering the deficiency of domestic legislation safeguard now and offering suggestions in a bid to enhance people’s respect, protection and realization of the right to water.

I. International Confirmation and Protection for the Right to Water

A. International Confirmation for the Right to Water


It is in recent years that the right to water was confirmed by the international community to be an independent human right. The recognition of the right to water underwent the process of acknowledging the right to water to be a human right, affirming the right to water as a focal part of other human rights and gradually protecting the right to water as an independent human right.

At the international level, the viewpoint that the right to water is part of the human right was initially brought forward at the United Nations Water Conference held in Mar Del Plata in Argentina in 1977. The conference established the concept of satisfying the human demand for basic water utilization for the first time, and put forth the idea that all the nations of whatever development stages and social and economic conditions had the right of access to drinking water whose quality and quantity could meet their basic demands. Afterwards, the access to safe drinking water and health facilities was widely accepted to be a sort of human right. In The Agenda 21 approved by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 and The Program of Action formulated at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, all the countries declared that everyone has the right to proper standard living, including sufficient food, clothing, housing, water and health facilities. Additionally, the Habitat Agenda approved at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in 1996 clearly pointed out that the access to water and health facilities is part of the right to proper standard living. In discussing the important factors to safeguard the right to adequate housing in No. 4 General Comment, the access to safe drinking water was a paratactic factor with that to health facilities rather than part of the right to water.

At the international level, the early exploration and detailed explanation of the right to water can date back to No. 4 General Comment on the right to adequate housing made by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In discussing the basic conditions for the right to housing, the Comment stresses that “everyone enjoying the right to adequate housing should have permanent access to the natural and shared resources, safe drinking water, cooking, heating and lighting energy, health facilities, washing equipment, food storage facilities, garbage disposal, drainage facilities and emergency services”, without clearly bringing forth the concept of “the right to water” but only admitting “safe drinking water” as part of the right to adequate housing. Similarly, in No. 12 General Comment on the right to adequate food, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights interprets the right to food, stresses the importance of water, takes the water resources as a vital measure to safeguard the right to food and specially emphasizes the significance of water for agricultural production. In addition, The Right to Plenty Food: Overview No. 34 compiled by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also indicates the same idea. However, in General Comment No. 13 on the right to health, the Committee on Social and Cultural Rights makes it clear that water is one of the most fundamental factors to ensure the right to health and the water must be safe and clean.

The above explanation to the rights illustrates that the right to water is inseparable from the right to health, the right to adequate housing and the right to food, and the entitlement to water is an important content and guarantee to realize these human rights. Nevertheless, the entitlement to and guarantee for water does not take it as an independent human right. The content of the right to water in the above rights is ambiguously defined. Hence, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights further specifies the right to water in General Comment No. 15.

General Comment No. 15 was prepared on the basis of the report titled Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to Realize the Rights to Water and Health Facilities by Haji Giesse, a special reporter, and was confirmed by the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly and the Untied Nations Human Rights Council.2 In line with the Comment, the right to water is the right of “individuals and households to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable and convenient water supply at reasonable prices. It is an indispensable human right and the requirement for a life of dignity. The Comment not merely links the right to water closely with the adequate food, clothes and housing necessary for human survival and development and takes it as a key guarantee for individuals’ life, health and dignity, but also regards the right to water as an independent right. The value and significance of the right to water as an independent human right is that: when the distribution and utilization of water resources conflicts with other human rights (for instance, the right to food and the right to development, etc.), absolute priorities should be given to the basic water supply for individual and household life. Although the agricultural water consumption for land irrigation is part of the right to food, the existence of the right to water requires the state to prioritize water consumption for individuals and households during water allocation. The United Nations Development Program has pointed out that such water consumption for that end takes up only a small part of the total, lower than 5%. Nonetheless, the water consumption for irrigation takes up more than 80% of the total of the developed countries at present.

What’s more, it requires the state not to impair the right to water at the excuse of development so as to fully realize and safeguard the right to water.

To sum up, the right to water as part of the human rights is an important condition to maintain people’s survival and basic dignity, which is inseparable from other human rights and boasts its unique value and significance.

B. The protection for the right to water by the International Covenants on Human Rights

Although the right to water has not been clearly stated in the International Covenants on Human Rights, some other covenants can provide international legal basis for the legal guarantee for the right to water. According to the explanation of General Comment No. 15, the guarantee for the right to water is implied in the stipulations on the right to proper standard living and the right to health. For instance, Clause 1 of Article 11 of The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stipulates, “The State Parties of the Covenant acknowledge that everyone has the right to acquire proper standard living for themselves and their families, including enough food, clothes and housing, and can improve their living conditions constantly.” That clause lists a series of rights derived from the right to proper standard living. Although it does not explicitly mention the element of “water”, water is one of the necessary guarantees to realize proper standard living simply because sufficient safe water is the essential element to prevent deaths from water depletion, reduce diseases concerning water and satisfy the requirements of individuals and households for consumption, food, drinking and hygiene. In this sense, the right to water is one of the most essential conditions to guarantee survival and maintain the basic living standards.

Furthermore, the legal basis for the right to water is rooted in the right to health. Clause 1 of Article 12 of The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stipulates, “(1) the State Parties of the Covenant recognize the everyone’s entitlement to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health.” The right to water is regarded as the indispensable condition and guarantee to realize the right to health simply because the entitlement to the right to water directly influences the right to health in the following aspects: influencing the children’s health, improving the hygienic conditions, reducing and preventing diseases, and guaranteeing the patients to have adequate medical water. Therefore, to provide sufficient safe drinking water for individuals and their families for their drinking, washing clothes, cooking and maintaining personal and family sanitation is a focal part of the human rights to safeguard people’s survival and dignity. It is the content of not merely the right to proper standard living but also the right to health. The right to water is not merely the vital aspect to materialize the aforesaid two rights but also the basic guarantee and prerequisite to realize them.

Apart from the related regulations in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Item (h) of Clause 2 in Article 14 of The Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women also stipulates the entitlement to water and power supply is part of the right to proper standard living; according to Article 23 of The International Covenant on the Rights of Children, it is the obligation of the state parties to provide clean drinking water to make children most healthy; Item 1 of Clause 2 in Article 28 of The Covenant on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stipulates that, to ensure the persons with disabilities to have equal access to water supply composes a pivotal part for the disabled to enjoy proper standard living and social security.

Besides, the right to water is closely related with the right to life, the right to be exempted from brutal, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to food and the right to housing, etc. The right to water directly influences people’s survival and the deprival of the right to water is equal to depriving people of life and bringing physical damage to them. For this reason, the clauses in the covenants on human rights closely related with the right to water can be cited to claim the right so as to materialize protection and relief.

II. The Duty of Government to Safeguard the Right to Water

As a human right, the right to water is safeguarded in many core international covenants on human rights. According to the International Covenants on Human Rights, its general explanations and the reports by special reporters, the government assumes many-sided and multilevel duties to safeguard the right to water.

A. The duties of equal protection and gradual realization

Although The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, The International Covenant on the Rights of Children and The Covenant on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have regulations on the protection of the right to water, in view of the enhanced representativeness of The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it is appropriate to analyze the duty of the government to safeguard the right to water based on this covenant.

Article 2 of The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights can be interpreted that the government has two international duties. The first is the obligation for equal protection. That is to say, the state parties have the obligation to ensure the individuals to enjoy non-discriminatory economic, social and cultural rights. The second is the obligation to gradually realize the right. That is to say, the state parties should give utmost scope to their resources and gradually realize all sorts of rights. The covenant has explicit regulations on the first obligation which can be immediately implemented not based on the accessibility of the resources. Nevertheless, the implementation of the second obligation is comparatively complicated and features obvious progressivity. In accordance with the interpretation of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in the course of “gradually realizing the obligations”, the state parties should actually undertake two respects of or two stages of obligations. First, it is the core obligation of the state parties to realize the minimum standard of the economic, social and cultural rights; second, the state parties are obliged to effectively realize the objectives set in The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as soon as possible. In terms of the second obligation, they should ensure to realize the following two elements: first, all the apt measures should be taken to implement or fully realize the economic, social and cultural rights; second, they should make the best of the available resources to fulfill the obligation. This obligation implies two corollaries. First, it is prohibited to adopt retrogressive measures deliberately. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has also explicitly put forth the idea to prohibit the state parties to take retrogressive measures in General Comment No. 11 on the right to education and General Comment No. 14 on the right to health. Second, the minimum standard or the core obligation should be fulfilled.

For this reason, according to Article 2 of The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the states that cannot equally safeguard the right to water, fail to reach the minimum international standards, deliberately adopt retrogressive measures and fail to make the best of the resources or adopt measures to safeguard the right to water are all involved in violating the regulations of the International Covenants on Human Rights. They should give their explanations according to the finiteness of their resources. Otherwise, they should undertake certain international legal responsibilities.3

B. The Minimum Core Obligation

The minimum core obligation is a concept brought forth by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in General Comment No. 3 on the properties of the state parties’ obligations. The Comment holds the view that limited by the resources, Article 2 of The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stipulates the obligation of the states to gradually realize the covenants and other sorts of obligations that should take effect immediately (see Paragraph 1 of “General Comment No. 3”). The obligations that should take effect immediately compose the minimum core obligations whose legal basis is the importance of the human right value of these rights which are the essential conditions for people’s survival with dignity. The states failing to fulfill the standards of the minimum core obligations are regarded as violating the covenants unless they can prove that they have made the best of their resources. According to General Comment No. 15 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the states should assume the following core obligations in terms of safeguarding the right to water: to ensure adequate safe water of the lowest quantity for individual and domestic use and for prevention against diseases; to ensure all the people especially the destitute or marginalized groups to have non-discriminatory access to water, water facilities and water equipment; to ensure to provide adequate safe facilities and equipment that can be practically often used in water supply; to ensure enough water points to avoid too long waiting; to ensure appropriate distance away from the residence; to ensure the personal security to get water; to ensure the fair distribution of all water supply facilities and equipment; to take and implement the national water strategies and water action plans oriented to all people; to participate in transparently formulating and regularly inspecting the water strategy and the water action plan which should include all sorts of methods such as the indicators and criteria of the right to water to closely monitor the progress; to pay special attention to the destitute or marginalized groups in the progress and contents of the water strategy and the water action plan; to supervise the degree of the realization of the right to water; to adopt pertinent low-cost water plans so as to protect the destitute and marginalized groups; to take measures to prevent, cure and control diseases relating to water, especially to ensure suitable health facilities.4

C. The obligations to respect, safeguard and realize the right to water

1.The obligation to respect the right to water

The obligation to respect the right to water requires the state parties to indirectly intervene with the entitlement to the right to water. Such obligation includes not participating in any action or campaign depriving or limiting equal access to adequate water; not arbitrarily intervening with the habitual or traditional arrangement for water resource allocation; not using wasted state-owned facilities or using and testing arms to illegally reduce or pollute the water source; not violating The International Humanitarian Law to restrict the use of or destroy the water equipment and infrastructure during armed conflicts. It is the minimum level of obligation, only requiring the states to take negative acts of omission and keep the original state of the rights non-violated. Without involving the input of resources and with explicit criteria for judgment, the obligation at this level was the earliest approved to be guaranteed in the judicial approach.

 2. The obligation to safeguard the right to water

The obligation to safeguard the right to water requires the state parties to prevent the third party from intervening with the entitlement to the right to water. The third party may be any individual, group, company, other entities and actors as authorized. It requires the states to take necessary effective legislation and other measures to prevent the third party from depriving people of equal access to water or contaminating or unfairly extracting the water resources, including the natural water resources, well water and other water distribution systems. If the water equipment (for instance, water supply network, water storage tank, river and the water intake of the well) is managed or controlled by the third party, the state parties must prevent it from damage and ensure the equal, economical and convenient access to adequate, safe and acceptable water.5 Now cases to safeguard the right to water have appeared worldwide and a series of states have established the principles to prohibit the third party from infringing on the right to water.

3. The obligation to realize the right to water

The obligation to realize the right to water can be further divided into the obligations to facilitate, promote and provide convenience. The obligation to facilitate the process requires the state parties to take proactive steps and assist individuals and communities to have access to the right to water. The obligation to promote the process requires the state parties to take measures to ensure proper education to the people so that they can know the methods to healthily use the water, protect the water sources and minimize the wasted water. It also requires the state parties to ensure the individuals and groups to enjoy this right when they cannot exercise it for the reasons beyond their control.6 Compared with the obligations to respect and safeguard the right to water, the obligation to realize the right to water needs to be considered in accordance with the obligation to gradually realize the right. The rationality of the measures to safeguard the right to water should be determined according to the resources of the states.

The aforesaid three obligations for the right to water overlap in mutual complementation, not merely expounding the duty of the government to safeguard the right to water from the legal and jurisprudential perspective, but also bringing forward the legal obligation of the states to protect the right to water as well as focusing on the judicial standards to safeguard the right to water at the international and domestic levels in a move to improve the duty system of the government for the right to water and provide the conceptual and legal framework to stimulate the protection of the right to water.

 III. Problems and Development of the Protection of the Right to Water in China

A. Challenges to protection of the right to water in China


The advancement of China’s urbanization is followed by the continuously rising demand for water resources. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Water Resources, among the 669 cities nationwide, 400 cities suffer from inadequate water supply and 110 from acute shortage of water; among 32 megacities of more than 1 million residents, 30 are troubled by long-term water shortage. Nine out of the 14 coastal open cities are nagged by severe water shortage. Water shortage is most serious in Beijing, Tianjin, Qingdao and Dalian, etc. Concurrently, the quality of urban water supply still faces greater problems, and 45.6% of the 46 key cities are confronted with inferior water quality. At present, China’s annual water shortage totals 30 billion~40 billion m3 and the annual water shortage in cities far exceeds 6 billion m3.7 At the same time, urban water pollution has been shocking by the sight. According to the statistics of related departments and as the results of sample surveys by the health inspection authorities at all levels for supervising the urban water supply in recent years, the probability of acceptance of spot check of urban water supply units nationwide is only 83.4%, and the sanitary control over the water supply units still needs further standardization.8

Compared with urban water supply, the rural water supply is more worrying and the water quality is the major headache. Centralized and decentralized water supply prevails in China’s rural areas at present. The centralized water supply refers to taking water from the source, with the water supervised, sterilized and then sent to the users through the water distributing network or taken from the public water supply points; the decentralized water supply means the users directly take water from the water sources. Comparatively, decentralized water supply makes it hard to guarantee the quality drinking water for rural residents. However, a rather large proportion of rural residents are still living on decentralized water supply at present.

The source of domestic drinking water in the rural area has been contaminated to different degree and the water quality is poor. The decentralized superficial layer water supply is more harmful and long-term drinking may pose threats to people’s physical health. Compared with the southern area of China, the northern area features less rainfall, weaker water renewing and purifying abilities, worse water quality and more vulnerability to be polluted. Once the water is contaminated, the water quality needs more time to recover.

The findings of the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that 80% of the diseases worldwide result from contaminated water and the poor quality of the drinking water leads to more than 50 sorts of diseases, such as diseases of digestive tract, communicable diseases, skin disease, diabetes, cancer, gall-stone and cardiovascular diseases. The research of the National Institute of Environmental Health, Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the contaminants in the drinking water especially the exposure to organic matters are conspicuously related with chronic diseases, especially gastrointestinal tumors such as liver caner and gastric cancer. Eight out of the 37 sorts of infectious disease explicitly stipulated in the laws of China are water-borne diseases. In 2006, totally 4.609 million cases of notifiable diseases were reported in China, including 1.278 million cases of water-borne diseases (27.7%).

To sum up, the drinking water in China now has great problems in both quality and quantity. The principal problem concerning urban water supply is the shortage of water resources, which is particularly serious in densely populated metropolises. In addition to water resource shortage, rural water supply also faces serious problems concerning the water quality and excessive amounts of inorganic and organic compounds exceeding the index of standard. The current situation is adverse China to reaching the international standards for the protection of the right to water or the overall protection to China’s right to water, and poses challenges to the realization of people’s rights to life and health.

B. Problems in the legislative guarantee

According to General Comment No. 3 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “Legislation is especially needed in many cases and even indispensable in some cases.” (Article 3 of “General Comment No. 3”). The legal system is a vital prerequisite to improve the condition of the right to water. But China’s legislation concerning the duty to protect the right to water remains in a hysteretic state. 

1. The concept of the protection of the right to water to be strengthened

According to the international practice, the legislation of a country on the water resources should, on the one hand, set forth the principle of the distribution of water as an essential productive factor in the national economy, and on the other hand, establish the priorities of the local residents in terms of the right to water in a drive to satisfy their fundamental demands for drinking water and hygiene. However, China’s relevant legislation gave little consideration to the right to water when it was established.

Article 1 of the Water Law of the People’s Republic of China clearly sets forth that, “This law is enacted for the purposes of rationally developing, utilizing, conserving and protecting water resources, preventing and controlling water disasters, bringing about sustainable utilization of water resources, and meeting the need of national economic and social development.” Article 2 of the Water Law of the People’s Republic of China clearly sets forth that, “This law is applicable to development, utilization, conservation, protection and management of water resources and to prevention and control of water disasters within the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” Nonetheless, as the basic law for the utilization of water resources, the Water Law plays a gigantic role in the whole national economy and people’s life. In spite of this, judged from Article 1, the Law chiefly aims to ensure the realization of economic benefits of water resources without placing the residents’ basic demands for water in a key position. Although Article 33 mentions the issue relating to the protection of residents’ use of the drinking water, “The state should establish the system of drinking water resources protection area. The people’s governments of provinces, municipalities and direct-controlled municipalities should demarcate the drinking water resources protection areas and take necessary measures to prevent water resources from drying up or pollution, so as to ensure safe drinking water for urban and rural residents.” However, these stipulations are more of guiding principles while less of operability, some of contents cannot adapt to new management requirements, and relevant mating measures and standards urgently need formulation, modification and improvement.

2. Unbalanced scope of protection of the right to water

    The present special regulations of China to protect domestic water pay more attention to urban water supply but neglect the protection of rural residents’ right to water. According to the Regulations on Urban Water Supply, the formulation of the Regulations is aimed at enhancing the management on urban water supply, developing the undertaking of urban water supply and guaranteeing the water supply used in urban life, production and other sorts of construction. Its applicable scope covers city public water supply and self built facilities.

Obviously, the Regulations on Urban Water Supply will not apply to China’s rural area, leaving a legislative gap to safeguard rural residents’ right to water. Although China’s prevailing laws and regulations exert some positive effects on protecting the drinking water in the rural area, the deficiency of special regulations leads to delinquent laws to solve the shortage of water resources in the rural area. Also, the deficiency of effective mating legal systems to prevent and punish drinking water pollution in the rural area hinder the establishment of the institutional and standardized system for supervision of drinking water safety, and affect the protection of rural residents’ right to water. In view of the government’s duty of equal protection set forth in the International Covenants on Human Rights, China should improve the legislation to guarantee the right to water and establish the legal system for the safe drinking water for rural residents.

3. Limited subjects and contents of duty set forth in laws and regulations

Water resources are the substances necessary for human survival. People’s right to adequate drinking water cannot be deprived on any condition, which is the core essential of the right to water. To safeguard residents’ right to water, not only the state should be responsible for actions and obligations of omission, but also non-state actors (chiefly commercial enterprises such as water supply enterprises) should assume some responsibilities. The economic benefits of non-state actors should be aptly restricted to make compromise to residents’ right to water. The water laws of some states leading in safeguarding the right to water, including the United States, South Africa and Indonesia, set forth that the water supply enterprises must satisfy the residents’ demands for water resources of a certain quota and should not suspend water supply even if the users cannot afford it.

China has made less regulations to safeguard the right to water and these regulations are less feasible. The duty of the government is set forth in Clause 2 of Article 43 of the Administrative Compulsory Law, “The administrative organization should not force the parties concerned to fulfill related administrative decisions by means of suspending water, power, heat and gas supply to them.” The clause stipulates the duty of the administrative organization and boasts a positive meaning for the protection of residents’ right to water. Nonetheless, it only stipulates the obligation of omission of the administrative organization, without further stipulating the duty of the government to take proactive measures to safeguard the right to water. Therefore, it is not binding on the non-state actors. Article 26 of the Water Law sets forth, “The water supply price should be made on the principles of breakeven, meager profit and reasonable pricing for water used for production and operation.” Although it to some extent restrains the water company from monopoly profits from high water prices and does good to guaranteeing residents’ right to water, it is still deficient because the residents too poor to afford water rates are still faced with suspended water supply. The present duty of government to safeguard the right to water and the present international practice are that, the water company should investigate into the reasons for the non-payment of water charges by domestic consumers, and only when it is confirmed that the residents who can afford the charge fail to pay on purpose can the water supply be suspended. Only the court has the right to judge whether the residents are too poor to pay the charges. To guarantee the residents’ right to water, the relevant institutions of China can refer to the judgment in making laws. That is to say, in terms of safeguarding the right to water, the state has not merely the passive obligation but also the positive obligation. When the individuals cannot have access to safe drinking water due to poverty, the government should assume the duty of positive water supply. The present Water Law of China has not set forth any regulation on these obligations which show the development direction of the reform of the water law.

C. Measures of China to safeguard the right to water and related development

To better fulfill the related duty for international human rights to safeguard the right to water, the Chinese government has, in recent years, invested a myriad of resources, taken active measures to improve protection of safe drinking water, incessantly strengthened the building of the legal system, boosted the overall level to safeguard the right to water and made positive headway in the overall work.

In terms of construction of legal system, to support and implement the Water Law (August 29, 2002) and improve the legal system to safeguard the right to water, the Chinese government has successively issued and amended a series of normative documents such as laws and regulations, including The Rural Drinking Water Safety and Sanitation Evaluation Indicator System (issued in November 2004), The Regulations on Urban Water Quality Management (issued in 2006), Law on Prevention and Control of Water Pollution (amended on February 28, 2008), The Environmental Protection Law (amended on April 24, 2014) and Standards for Drinking Water Quality (issued in 2006 and comprehensively enforced in 2012). These documents not only boosted the drinking water monitoring indicators and unified the urban and rural sanitary standards for drinking water, but also reinforced treatment of waste water. Furthermore, China has also issued the standards and technical norms relating to water source protection area delineation, safe operation and maintenance of water supply facilities, drinking water supervision and emergency management9 in a move to gradually complete the legal system to safeguard the right to water. The above laws and regulations have jointly set up the institutional framework that the first-tier governments serve as the units, the department of urban construction is responsible for building the urban and rural water facilities, the water department for the uniform allocation of water resources in a certain area, the department of environmental protection for prevention and treatment of water pollution and conservation of water resources in water source, and the department of health for providing the institutional framework of water hygiene, jointly providing the treatment system and legal foundation to safeguard the right to water.

In terms of the formulation and implementation of the development program of the right to water, to drive the protection of the right to water, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Health jointly issued The Urban Drinking Water Security Planning (2006-2020) and The Safe Drinking Water Project for National Villages in the “Twelfth Five-Year Plan” Period, compiled and implemented The National Urban Drinking Water Source Environmental Protection Program, The National Urban Drinking Water Source Safety Protection Program and The National Urban Water Facility Transformation and Construction in the “Twelfth Five-Year Plan” Period and the 2020 Long-range Goal, which combined the protection of drinking water with drought control, pollution prevention and control and waste water treatment, not merely providing policy guarantee for the realization of the right to water but also providing stable investment mechanism and resource guarantee to safeguard the urban and rural residents’ right to water. The above programs are aimed at cementing the construction, protection and management of the drinking water source, rigorously implementing the responsibilities, accelerating urban and rural water facility transformation and engineering construction, coordinating the overall urban and rural water supply management and supervision, and improving the long-term mechanisms of water price adjustment and investment mechanism, so as to fuel the all-round protection and realization of nationwide residents’ right to water.

In terms of the realization of the right to water, since the Chinese government has increased construction of urban and rural water facilities, the residential population entitling to safe drinking water has been on the rise. During the “Eleventh Five-Year Plan” period, China invested more than RMB200 billion in improving water facilities and water protection and conservation. The rapid increase in input significantly improved the realization of the right to water in China, and helped complete the related indicators of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals six years in advance. The urban water penetration rate rose from 48% in 1990 to 97.16% in 2012; the water penetration rate in counties and designated towns jumped from 60.1% in 1990 to 83.79% in 2013 and the water users increased from 37 million to 149 million correspondingly; the town administration’s penetration rate of water grew from 35.7% in 1990 to 68.2% in 2013, the per capita water consumption was drastically increased and the proportion of central water supply in the administrative villages hit 68.2 %. The above data were from the statistical data released by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.10 Cumulatively, the problem of safe drinking water for the rural population of 210 million was addressed.11 It basically changed the pattern since the founding of the People’s Republic of China that only metropolises nationwide had access to central water supply. The urban central supply achieved almost full coverage and the situation of all decentralized water supply in the rural area was changed to some extent, providing solid material foundations for the protection of safe drinking water.

At the same time, the sanitary standard for urban and rural drinking water has been largely upgraded. The modification and overall implementation of the Standards for Drinking Water Quality vastly raised the sanitary standard for urban and rural drinking water, increasing the former 35 indicators to 106. The water sample rate of urban public water supply plants nationwide reaching the standard hit 83% and the rate of the source of urban drinking water reaching the standard arrived at about 80%. In the rural area, the implementation of the 2005-2006 Rural Drinking Water Safety Emergency Project Program and the National Rural Drinking Water Safety Project during the “Eleventh Five-Year Plan” Period popularized central water supply in the rural area, which provided fundamental guarantee and prerequisite to improve the quality of water supply. The application of the Standards for Drinking Water Quality further promoted the standardization of the water quality. Meanwhile, the governmental departments at all levels established the drinking water hygiene monitoring network which gradually increased the pass percent of water quality.

The overview of China’s fulfillment of the duty to safeguard the right to water shows that although domestic legislation concerned is still deficient to safeguard the right to water, the formulation and implementation of the national development program and the administrative planning have made up for the deficiency of the legislative measures in some respects. Nonetheless, in view of the big cardinal number of China’s rural population and the weak infrastructure, and exposed to the challenges of changing natural conditions and the promotion of industrialization, China is still confronted with huge pressure in terms of the protection of the right to water. Therefore, the Chinese government should make full use of available resources and take all the appropriate political, legal, fiscal and social measures to safeguard individuals’ entitlement to the right of water. The protection of the right to water influences the realization and development of a series of human rights, such as the right to proper standard living, the right to life and the right to health. It is also an obligatory duty of the Chinese government to realize it.

* SUN Meng (孙萌), associate professor of China University of Political Science and Law Institute of Human Rights and Doctor of Law; WANG Zhongyang(王仲阳), Master Degree candidate of China University of Political Science and Law Institute of Human Rights.

1. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Overview No. 35: The Right to Water, at 1.
2. The right to water was confirmed in the resolution in two files, respectively, File A/RES/64/292 and File A/HRC/RES/15/9.
3. See Sun Meng, Research on the Justiciability of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,Intellectual Property Publishing House, 2011, at 55.
4. See Paragraph 37 of “General Comment No. 15” of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
5. See supra note,Paragraph 23.
6. Ibid, Paragraph 25.
7. Data source: http://www.h2o-china.com/news/39563.html, last visited on August 2, 2016.
8. The National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Construction, the Ministry of Health, and the State Environmental Protection Administration: The Urban Drinking Water Security Planning (2006-2020).
9. See The Report of the State Council to Safeguard Safe Drinking Water, approved at the 27th Session of the Standing Committee of the 11lth National People’s Congress on June 27, 2012; at http://www.npc.gov.cn/npc/xinwen/2012-07/11/content_1729559.htm, last visited on September 28, 2016.
10. See the official website of the ministry, athttp://www.mohurd.gov.cn/xytj/tjzljsxytjgb/index.html, last visited on September 16, 2016.
11. See Ministry of Water Resources: The Problem of Safe Drinking Water for Rural Population of 210 Million Addressed During the “Eleventh Five-Year Plan” Period, at China Economic Net, http://news.163.com/10/1227/09/6OTB3ELN00014JB5.html, last visited on August 30, 2016.