What is the Right to Water and Domestic and Urban Services?
The right to safe water is implicit in the rights to adequate food, adequate housing, and health. Without access to safe water, these rights are unattainable and therefore undermine the right to an adequate standard of living. In 2002, the UN Commission on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) issued the “General Comment no. 15 on Article 12 of the International Covenant.” This document states that “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use.” General Comment 15 of the CESCR also states, “The right to water contains both freedoms and entitlements. The freedoms include the right to maintain access to existing water supplies necessary for the right to water, and the right to be free from interference, such as the right to be free from arbitrary disconnections or contamination of water supplies. By contrast, the entitlements include the right to a system of water supply and management that provides equality of opportunity for people to enjoy the right to water.”
The World Charter to the Right to the City (WCRC) defines domestic and urban services as those offered by the national or municipal government, such as “sanitation, waste removal, energy and telecommunications services, and facilities for health care, education, basic-goods supply, and recreation, in co-responsibility with other public or private bodies.”1
According to the WCRC, the right to water and domestic and urban services is the guaranteed right to access adequate and affordable services for all persons, even if the service has been privatized. It also means people have the right to oversee and monitor service provision to ensure the quality and have a say in cost determination.
What is the Impact of the Right to Water and Domestic and Urban Services on our Everyday Life?
What is a Good Quality Public Service?
Government reports show quantitative indicators that illustrate how well the state is achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and gradually improving the standard of living, such as potable water reaching 100% of urban households and 93% of rural ones, but this quantitative indicator is not the full story. Despite state investment, water networks in rural areas are of poor quality and not regularly maintained, causing leakages, ill-functioning purification stations, and the occasional infiltration of agricultural and industrial pollutants or sewage from septic tanks, which expose people to polluted water.
We can extract guidelines from General Comment No. 15 to evaluate whether public services are meeting their social objective. These guidelines can be divided into four aspects that can be used to analyze the quality of public service provision in Egypt:
Accessibility: the consistency of service provision and its physical accessibility (distance traveled to access the service).
Sufficiency: the distribution of service provision to quantitatively meet local needs.
Acceptability: the safety of the public service and its respect for local cultures and gender issues.
Affordability: the direct and indirect costs related to accessing the public service.
Accessibility: According to a 2005 figure, 75% of the rural population does not have access to sanitary services which is approximately 30 million people suffering daily without access to proper sewage and drainage infrastructure.2 In 2012, tens of villages staged protests to pressure authorities to respect their unfulfilled promises of reliable water and electricity supply to their homes and businesses. During the first few months of 2014, frequent electricity outages have been reported in different governorates. These extended electricity outages not only affect the quality of life of residents, but also their economic survival.
Sufficiency: A 2005 study conducted in Al-Fayyūm Governorate showed that 30% of households experienced frequent water cuts and 22% complained of water shortages during the daytime, forcing them to use untreated water sources such as canal waters. Rural inhabitants suffer similar service deficiencies in electricity and sanitation provision. The distribution of service provision is further discussed later in this brief.
Acceptability: Egyptians rely on Nile canals for 84% of their water needs and on artesian wells for 14% of national water needs. The two main water sources, surface and underground water, are heavily polluted and water treatment facilities cannot undo all the damage inflicted on the drinking water supply.
Industrial pollutants in Egypt are estimated at 4.5 million tons per year, of which 50,000 tons are toxic, and with no enforced regulation on waste disposal a significant portion is directly discharged into surface water sources and municipal sewage systems. Also, some sewage stations pump their refuse straight into water canals. Ordinary people often dump garbage and dead animals into the same canals from which the purification stations draw water for treatment. In 2009, a thousand residents of Al-Barada, a small village in Al-Qalyubia governorate, contracted Typhoid as a result of sewage leaking into the water network.
Underground water supply is often polluted through mixing with sewage and drainage water. For lack of other options, some people in rural areas are sometimes left to drink untreated underground water drawn by hand pumps. The public health impact is not difficult to foresee, with 20% of all child deaths and 80% of all diseases traced back to illnesses caused by low-quality drinking water and inadequate sanitation facilities, not to mention the impact these pollutants have on the deterioration of the environment. For more on the topic, the “2010 Report on The Right to Water” by the Haby Center for Environmental Rights and TADAMUN’s “What Egyptians go through to find pure drinking water!” offer a deep insight into the status of water provision in Egypt.
Affordability: Due to the universal subsidization policies that have been adopted for decades in Egypt, most public services are affordable to the masses, at least in theory. One of the most poorly managed public services on the local level is the butane gas cylinder used for household cooking. Only 10% of the urban poor benefit from the natural gas network and the majority of urban poor and rural households rely on gas cylinders for their cooking needs. The gas cylinders are highly subsidized to ensure their affordability, however poor management and inventory monitoring at local outlets and corruption has often created a supply crisis. This has led to long queues, fights erupting, and people having to resort to black markets where the cylinders are sold at ten times the price, if not more.
Planning and Management of Domestic and Urban Services
Three pillars are needed to ensure the effective and equitable delivery of public services: first, the availability of financial resources to the local administrative body providing the service; second, the equitable distribution of resources across territories to account for differences in population needs; and third, the efficient use of resources at the local level to maximize the quality and quantity of service provided.3 Egypt does not allocate enough to public service provision, with only 16% of national recurrent resources allocated to local administration for service provision, compared to an average of 20 to 30 percent in transition economies similar to Egypt. As to the efficient use of resources at the local level, public service providers are no different than other government entities, with the majority of their budget going to salaries and other expenses. Of the allocated budget, only 25% is available for operation and maintenance and 6% for local capital expenditures.4 In addition, the state incurs higher costs than necessary for extending domestic and urban services to new areas as a result of poor coordination between involved authorities. Instead of installing water, sewage and gas connections simultaneously and then pave the street once and for all, each service is installed independently incurring avoidable repaving and labor costs. This also extends the inconvenience of residents who have to endure long periods of construction work in their streets.
Even though public service provision is designated to the local administrative units, the local administration is primarily run by the executive municipalities on direction from the national government. With the centralized nature of the Egyptian administrative system, local administrators and direct beneficiaries do not have the authority to tailor expenditure according to local needs. The detachment of decision-making from local realities renders it inefficient and unresponsive to local needs. Unlike many countries in the Global South (as shown in “Global Examples” below), Egyptians do not elect representatives to their local governing bodies who are vested with the authority to make decisions about public services in their locality without direct oversight and undue interference from the central government. This lack of transparency and accountability to the public is one of the driving causes behind the unacceptable level of service provision. (For more on the local administration system in Egypt click here.)
Distribution of Public Services
Public service provision and associated budgets are not fairly distributed to correlate with population density and demand. Wide disparities are evident in quality and quantity between different parts of the country and within the same city, which is a symptom of the absence of equitable and sustainable urban development. It can be argued that the state is facing a wide range of priorities and a strained budget, however, if the state considered providing marginalized citizens a minimal standard of services and not treat them as second-class citizens it would find ways to gradually reach that goal within the budget.
Urban dwellers enjoy more public services – in quality and quantity – compared to their rural counterparts, as is the case in most countries. However, the services available for rural inhabitants are, more often than not, below what is acceptable as the bare minimum. This can be generalized for most public services, such as sanitation, energy, etc. For example, 75% of the rural population does not have access to sanitary facilities5 and 56% lack regular access to clean drinking water compared to urban dwellers, almost all of which are connected to the municipal water network. The per capita share of drinking water in Egypt is 259 liter/day nationwide. But it is far higher in Cairo (752) and Alexandria (580) than in al-Minyā (105) and Aswan (108). A similar disparity is evident in electricity provision between urban and rural areas, many towns in southern Egypt only receive electricity for a couple of hours a day, and at night the entire town is without electricity, except for the few who have power generators. This disparity between urban centers and rural areas is prevalent across the country, especially in towns and villages without major industry or tourist attractions.
The uneven distribution of services is not only between urban and rural areas, but also within the city’s high- and low-income areas, between the planned areas and informal settlements. The disparity in the level of service provision was evident in the rotating blackouts that have occurred since 2011, where informal, low- and medium-income areas carried a higher burden of these blackouts, living without electricity sometimes for days at a time. This was compared to more affluent parts of the city, which experienced power outages only for a few hours – if at all. A similar scenario occurs for water distribution, with some medium- and low-income areas systematically experiencing long periods of water shortages. This led the inhabitants of Saft al-Laban, a village in al-Gīza, to organize a sit-in and occupy the governorate’s administrative building in protest in 2012. There are numerous examples showing the wide gap between high- and low-income areas in our cities in the quality and quantity of healthcare facilities, schools, access to public transportation, sanitation, and public space.
The Right to Water and Domestic and Urban Services and the Egyptian Constitution
Egypt signed the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural rights and is therefore under obligation to uphold all the rights this covenant entails, including the right to water. The provision of public services was first mentioned in the 1971 Constitution. Article 16 guaranteed the state’s role in ensuring the provision of social and health services and raising the standard of living in villages. This article was removed from the 2012 and 2014 constitutions.
The newly drafted 2014 Constitution Article 79 states: “Each citizen has the right to healthy, sufficient amounts of food and clean water.” Even though this article recognizes the right to clean water, it does not obligate the state to provide clean water to its citizens. However, Article 45 obligates the state to “commit to protecting its seas, beaches, lakes, waterways, mineral water, and natural reserves” and prohibits the pollution or misuse of water resources.
Articles 176 and 177 address service provision at the local level. Article 176 states, “the law organizes empowering administrative units in providing, improving, and managing public utilities.” Article 177 obligates the state to “ensure the equitable distribution of facilities, services, and resources [at the local unit level].” Article 83 tackles the needs of special groups, requiring the state to “put into account the needs of the elderly while planning public utilities.” The administration of public services is addressed in Article 171, which gives the Prime Minister the authority to issue “regulations necessary for the creation and organization of public utilities and interests upon the approval of the cabinet.”
The Egyptian Constitution does not address the accessibility, sufficiency, acceptability or affordability of domestic and urban services, qualities that ensure that these services serve their social purpose. The constitution has a long way to go to comprehensively address the provision of water and domestic and urban services to ensure the fulfillment of the state’s social obligation towards the public.
Since public service provision is the backbone of ensuring a decent quality of life and is at the essence of the social contract between the state and its citizens, many countries have drafted strong constitutional articles that obligate the state to public service provision, protect against privatization, and set the minimum acceptable quality standards. Constitutional articles from countries in the global South, particularly Latin America and Africa, offer instructive examples of how to address issues regarding public service provision.
Article 147.2 in the Dominican Republic’s 2010 Constitution and Article 20.II in Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution are the only constitutions that oblige state and individual providers of public services to comply with the five characteristics of water provision listed in the UN Commission report, in addition to other principles. The Dominican Republic Article states, “Public services provided by the state or by individuals in the legal or contractual arrangements, must comply with the principles of universality, accessibility, efficiency, transparency, accountability, continuity, quality, reasonable pricing and equity.”
The Columbian Constitution (Article 365, 1991), Bolivian (Article 374.I) and Moroccan (Article 154, 2011) Constitutions obligate the state to ensure the equitable and efficient distribution of public services over the national territory. The Columbian constitutional article also stresses the importance of public services to “the social purpose of the state.” Access to water in the Bolivian Constitution is based on “principles of solidarity, complementariness, reciprocity, equity, diversity and sustainability.” (Article 373.I)
The administration system of authorities providing public services is tackled in the East Timor 2002 Constitution, which states that the administration “shall be structured to prevent excessive bureaucracy… and ensure the contribution of individuals interested in its efficient management” (Article 137.2). The second part gives an entry point for civil society and individuals to have a say in the management process of resources. Similarly, the Ecuadorian 2008 Constitution obligates the state to provide “equitable and mutually supportive allocation of the budget for the implementation of public policies and the provision of public goods and services” (Article 85.3). The privatization of water provision is prohibited in any form in the Ecuadorian (Article 318) and Bolivian (Article 373.II) Constitutions. Bolivia further recognizes access to water and sewer systems as a human right (Article 20.III). Bolivia obligates the state to “manage, regulate, protect and plan the adequate and sustainable use of water resources” (Article 374.I). The Moroccan Constitution in Article 154 obligates the state to provide public services according to “the norms of quality, transparency, rendering of accounts and responsibility.”
In order to support a transparent administrative system that provides public services, channels for public participation need to be established to keep the state accountable. The Bolivian Constitution obligates the state to manage water resources “with social participation, guaranteeing access to water for all the habitants” (Article 374.I). Morocco obligates public service providers to “keep track of their (user) comments, suggestions and complaints. They report on the management of public funds… and are subject to the obligations of monitoring and evaluation” (Article 156).
Public service provision is addressed in a similar manner in the Columbian and Bolivian Constitutions. The state is responsible of the development of local territories and builds projects to that end (Columbia, Article 311). The decentralization of service provision and empowerment of local authorities is essential to tailor needs and administration of public services according to local “population, economic and natural resources, and social, cultural and ecological circumstances” (Columbia, Article 302). Decentralized entities are also permitted to locally subsidize low-income individuals to cover their basic needs of domestic public services (Columbia, Article 368).
The Constitutional article which touches upon many of the key aspects of the quality and equitability of service provision and the state’s responsiveness and accountability to the public is Article 232 in the Kenyan 2010 Constitution. Not only does it detail the state’s obligation to fulfill these goals, but it obligates the Parliament to formulate legislation that would ensure the implementation of the article. The article states:
(1) The values and principles of public service include:
(a) High standards of professional ethics;
(b) Efficient, effective and economic use of resources;
(c) Responsive, prompt, effective, impartial and equitable provision of services;
(d) Involvement of the people in the process of policy making;
(e) Accountability for administrative acts;
(f) Transparency and provision to the public of timely, accurate information;
(g) Subject to paragraphs (h) and (i), fair competition and merit as the basis of appointments and promotions;
(h) Representation of Kenya’s diverse communities; and
(i) Affording adequate and equal opportunities for appointment,
Training, and advancement, at all levels of the public service, of:
(i) Men and women;
(ii) The members of all ethnic groups; and
(iii) Persons with disabilities.
(2) The values and principles of public service apply to public service in:
(a) All state organs in both levels of government; and
(b) All state corporations.
(3) Parliament shall enact legislation to give full effect to this Article.
The Way Forward
The provision of domestic and urban public services, particularly water provision, is integral to raising the standard of living in Egypt. It is imperative that the state recognizes its core obligation to provide and distribute these services equitably to reach all of its citizens and residents. The following guidelines can assist in reaching this goal:
1. This article will discuss safe drinking water, sanitary services, and energy provision.
2. Arab Republic of Egypt Ministry of Agriculture & Land Reclamation, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Desert Research Center. (2005) “Egyptian National Action Program to Combat Desertification.”
3. Boex, Jamie (2011). “Democratization in Egypt: The Potential Role of Decentralization. Urban Institute Center on International Development and Governance.”
4. See note 3.
5. See note 2.
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