Groundwater and the right to a healthy environment

UN-Water Groundwater Summit, UNESCO Paris, 6th December 2022, Side Event 

Groundwater and the right to a healthy environment: improving water security in humanitarian crises 

Groundwater is central to the right to a healthy environment and the right to clean drinking water, but the understanding of groundwater resources is often overlooked in planning and regulatory processes. Human Right 2 Water (HR2W), along with Deltares, Action Contre la Faim (ACF), and Solidarité International (SI), hosted a side event at the UN-Water Groundwater Summit. The session was used to discuss how groundwater is key to the right to healthy environment and to the right to clean water.  

During humanitarian crises, institutional systems are weakened, environmental monitoring programs are suspended or terminated, and groundwater evaluation and management are often neglected. 

The session was introduced with presentations from experts including Olcay Unver, professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Arizona State University, and Dr. Callist Tindimugaya, Uganda Commissioner for Water Resources Planning and Regulation at Ministry of Water and Environment. The following roundtable discussion included speakers from the Turkish Water Institute, the European Federation of Geologists and the Swiss Development Cooperation to participate and give their recommendations.  

Olcay Unver, presented a study from HR2W which analyses the links between the human right to water and the right to a healthy environment. This is a new and ongoing study developed in 16 countries that captures nicely the Summit’s slogan “make the invisible, visible”. Groundwater is the source of 50% of the drinking water around the world and it is not given proper attention due to lack of information and visibility. Governments and policy makers do not make as much of an effort to protect water and sanitation rights as they do for other environmental aspects. While it is an early indication, the study has shown that water and sanitation are included in only one third of national constitutions, while the right to a healthy environment is included in three quarters, suggesting that water and sanitation have a lower political visibility than the environment. It is hoped that by making this link, these three human rights can mutually benefit from the attention paid to each other. 

Marta Faneca (Deltares) explained that “We are trying to merge science with issues of governance” The access to clean water and groundwater can influence displacement and migration patterns around the world. She promoted the need to identify groundwater sites and then protect the resource to sustainably support communities who migrate to those locations. Dr. Callist Tindimugaya (Ministry, Uganda) explained that  

“It is important to bring people to water and not water to the people.”  

It is difficult to guarantee this resource given that the hosting population is often the same size as the refugee population. Tom Heath (ACF) expanded on groundwater in immigration camps by discussing the problems they have encountered with groundwater management. The problems are compounded by a lack of data, limited funding, weak capacity building mechanisms, and little security. “WASH is generally underfunded (…) If we want to leave no one behind, we need to invest there too,” Baptiste Lecouyot (SI). 

In the roundtable discussion, the experience from experts highlighted the complexity of the situation. Andres Wehrli (SDC) stressed that, “When we are in a humanitarian context, the system in place is likely to be dysfunctional,” and Tugba Evrim (SUEN) “The problem with raising awareness is that Groundwater is a hidden problem, we often have no idea of what is happening under the ground.” 

Considering the need for a human rights-based approach, Pavlos Tyrologou (FHG) captured it all in his statement that “Local societies in need that own the problems should also own the solutions.”  

Roundtable discussion

If you wish to see the full recording of this session you can find it here:

  • The YouTube link shows the full recording of the room. For this specific Side Event you will find it from 5:44:35 – 6:44:16