Freshwater Action Network
– grassroots influencing on water and sanitation

The Great Stink — The Thames River and the Right to Sanitation

Today is blog action day – thousands of bloggers from more than one hundred countries are all blogging about the same thing. This year that topic is water. Even for those of us who are networked everyday on this issue – this is still quite an event! As I type these words I feel a sort of extra solidarity – knowing that people who do not necessarily work on or think about these issues every day are today putting their brain power into it.

What’s not to love?

Since the subject is water, I am going to start close to home.

The River Thames in London.

But I am going to go back in time.

It’s the summer of 1858 and it is unusually hot for London. The Thames River is sluggishly flowing and stinking up the entire city.

Overflowing with sewage and bacteria the river’s stench is so thick it is stalking the city, turning corners, seeping through walls and dominating daily life. In the House of Commons, perched on the Thames, working with the stinking river so close has become impossible. Curtains are soaked in chloride of lime to mask the smell while members consider evacuating to various locations.

Then the rains come and the crisis is ameliorated but not before political leaders do their job – they appoint a select committee to report on ‘The Great Stink’ and recommend how to solve it.

The Thames has been described as ‘serene yet strong, majestic yet sedate, swift without violence, without terror great.’ At this point in history however, the Thames was full of terror – the terror of inadequate sanitation, the terror of disease.

London is different now. But around the world, diarrhoea due to inadequate sanitation and a related lack of clean and safe water claims the lives of 4,000 children a day. Clean, safe water is not possible without adequate sanitation.

Four thousand children a day.

What will the House of Commons do now?

The United Nations Human Rights Council, on serene lake Geneva and far from the stinking rivers and cesspools and indignity that more than 2.6 billion people without sanitation face, has done their part. Recently following a UN General Assembly resolution that sanitation is, like water, a human right, the UNHRC mainstreamed the right to sanitation at long last into the human rights framework as part of an adequate standard of living.

During this process, the United Kingdom stood on the floor of the Human Rights Council and noted that they do not recognise sanitation as a human right.

How quickly we forget.

History however is long. The UK government has recognized the right to water and has a track record of leading on water and sanitation funding internationally. This charitable giving is led by committed experts at the UK Department for International Development.

It is time to translate this charity into justice. Recognizing that sanitation is a human right puts the power back in the hands of people to claim what is rightfully theirs already, not just to accept what others benevolently bestow upon them. Besides being patronizing, this method of development is simply not sustainable.

If you agree, please contact the UK government and ask them to begin a process to legally recognize the right to sanitation and take their work on this issue to the next level (contact info and tips for contacting below).

After you make your call or send an email, why not join me and thousands of other around the world as the World Walks for Water this March?

The relevant offices that need to hear from you in the UK are:

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP
Telephone: 020 7238 5339
Email: [email protected]

Foreign and Commonwealth Office
First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
The Rt Hon William Hague MP
Telephone: 020 7008 1500
Email: [email protected]

If you are a UK citizen, contact your local MP as well! Just type your postcode into this form and get all the details you need.

Quick tips:

Let the person you speak with know that:

  • You are aware of UK leadership in development
  • You were disappointed with the UK view on the right to sanitation recently in the human rights council
  • You would like to know when they will start a process to consider the recognition of the right to sanitation

Leave your contact details, particularly if you are a UK citizen. Be respectful of the person who takes your call by not taking too much of their time and not expecting them to know the details on this issue.

Let us know when you take action and leave a comment in solidarity for all those working with you around the world today!

Here's another great Blog Action Day post, Children Should Carry Books, Not Crappy Water

(Banksy's image of Death is based on a 19th century etching illustrating the pestilence of The Great Stink. Photo: Adrian Pingstone.)

It is indeed brave of you to

It is indeed brave of you to keep going even after knowing that people who do not necessarily work on or think about these issues every day are today putting their brain power into it. Anyways thanks a lot for the info.


Update -- a bit of action -- this time from the House of Lords

Last week Lord Hylton submitted the following written question to the House of Lords: 

To ask Her Majesty's Government why they dissociated themselves from the consensus in the recent resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council on safe drinking water and sanitation,  given their adherence to millennium goal 7C and to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Response: The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): The Government regret that they had to dissociate from consensus on the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution on safe drinking water and sanitation. The resolution recognised "the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation". The UK's position is that there exists a right to water as an element of the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), but that there is no basis in international law for recognising a human right to sanitation at this time. The Government believe that recognising rights without due international consideration of what they comprise creates unhelpful ambiguity. Individuals cannot know what they can legitimately claim from the state and the state has no clear understanding of the protection it is obliged to afford to the individual. As part of their efforts to support achievement of the millennium development goals, the Government will prioritise aid spending on programmes to ensure that everyone has access to clean water and sanitation. However, the policy priority we attach to improving sanitation should not lead us to recognise a new legal right without due regard to the structure of international human rights law.

That this conversation is beginning to happen at this level is great news! Small steps forward for the UK on this issue... 



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