Access to water and sanitation are internationally recognized as human rights. Still, according to the 2019 UN World Water Development Report, an estimated 800 million people around the world do not have access to water, while over 2.3 billion people lack access to sanitation facilities. Data from the Joint Monitoring Programme, or JMP, for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene by the World Health Organization and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund reveals large gaps in access to water and sanitation between the rich and the poor in countless countries. For example, only 28% of Haiti’s poorest people have access to water, as opposed to 94% of the country’s richest. Similarly, between the rich (88%) and the poor (10%) in India, there exists a 78-point disparity in access to basic sanitation services. To better address these inequalities surrounding the right to water, Stockholm International Water Institute, or SIWI, has chosen “Water for society: Including all” as the theme for World Water Week in 2019. Beginning Sunday, August 25, more than 3,300 people from 130 countries will gather in Stockholm, Sweden, to exchange ideas and best practices, form partnerships and take action to make access to water inclusive for all.

By definition, access to water as a human right means equal entitlement to water regardless of status, such as financial status, gender, disability, location, political affiliation or religion. But water rights are appurtenant, meaning they “run with the land.” Access to water, then, frequently depends on ownership of land on or near water. Among other things, land rights give people a sense of stability and security, and a sense of home. Where clear land rights exist, people are encouraged to invest in measures of improvement, including those that improve sanitation conditions and water supplies for their housing and land. Such “self-supply” of water and sanitation facilities, which in some cases is thought to be more sustainable than community-supported interventions, is only attainable with secure land tenure.

On the other hand, a lack of land tenure security has been shown to be a lead cause in the formation of slum settlements globally. Without land documents or security of tenure, people living in informal settlements are unmistakably excluded from networked infrastructure and delivery of regular services, like clean drinking water and adequate sewage. As cities forgo management planning, urban dwellers are forced to rely on informal water vendors, from which water is often significantly up-charged, and even then, not guaranteed safe to drink. Further, when on-site sanitation facilities such as septic tanks and pit latrines go unemptied, people living in slums have no choice but to revert to open defecation. The World Bank reported that roughly one in eight people practice open defecation because the latrines available to them are unclean or unsafe. Without a proper space for people to dispose of waste, fecal matter is allowed to enter and contaminate public water sources, putting high-density settlements increasingly more at risk for disease outbreak.

As a housing organization, Habitat for Humanity understands the degree to which water rights and WASH—an acronym for “water, sanitation and hygiene”—implementation depend on recognized land rights, and how this relationship intersects with people’s identities. Low-income individuals, women and people with disabilities disproportionately experience a lack of access to water and sanitation. The cycle is simple, but vicious all the same. For the poor, who do not own land, loans and other financing methods for water and sanitation facilities are wholly inaccessible. For women, who are systematically denied rights to their land, the looming threat of eviction makes WASH an unworthy investment for temporary living situations. And for people with disabilities, who cannot physically access WASH facilities, legal permits to make modifications to these WASH facilities (i.e.: widening pathways and building ramps) act as barriers to accessibility, and land must first be available to make such modifications. In all cases, no land means no water or sanitation.

Almost four years after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals , or SDGs, for 2030, Habitat for Humanity continues to work diligently towards achieving inclusive and sustainable access to land, water and sanitation, starting with those most in need. Through the Solid Ground Campaign, Habitat for Humanity Côte d’Ivoire has partnered with local and national governments to expedite the process of issuing land titles, allowing people to gain access to land—and water and sanitation facilities—more quickly. Read more on how Habitat for Humanity Côte d’Ivoire is working locally to secure tenure here.

In regard to women specifically, Habitat for Humanity Bolivia has inspired several changes to Bolivian property law, enabling 1.8 million women in Bolivia to have their names listed on property deeds; this women’s advocacy work is being replicated and scaled up in Brazil, Peru, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Jamaica. Get an update on Habitat for Humanity Bolivia’s project for women’s land rights here.

As Solid Ground continues to secure tenure for adequate housing, Habitat for Humanity International looks to deliver inclusive WASH interventions that put affordability, contextual needs and inclusivity at the forefront of our housing efforts. Our approach to WASH draws on a long-standing and comprehensive knowledge of the systems related to housing, as well as an expertise to leverage housing-related sectors, to make our WASH interventions as effective as possible. Working with private sector groups to expand water services through water kiosks and water tank installations, we promote sustainability and community growth through the implementation of market-based WASH, through which communities are lifted into full participation and empowered to continue best sanitation and hygiene practices. This World Water Week, join Habitat for Humanity International’s Solid Ground Campaign as we further commit to achieving a water-wise world by improving access to land, water and basic sanitation services across the globe.