The people of Tharparkar (Thar), Pakistan, called ‘Tharis’, have been facing water scarcity for years. In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the provision of quality water is essential. While the Supreme Court of Pakistan has recognised that the right to life includes a right to drinking water, this is not sufficient to meet its international human rights law obligations.
A Thari woman wearing a bright coloured long swirling skirt, adorning her arms with traditional white bangles while balancing an earthen pot on her head may seem like the description of a beautifully painted picture, but the reality of her situation is grim and lamentable. Only 47% of Tharis have access to water. It is women and girls (75% of the time) who travel more than 3km and spend 3-5 hours fetching water. This consumes 52% of their working hours that can be spent in any economic or educational activity. The continuous walking also affects their health. Thar is a rural area that is in a drought-like situation since the last 4-5 years, and insufficiency of WASH facilities are the leading cause of diarrheal deaths of children that also contributes to malnutrition. This causes, among other things, the death of 1,500 children in Thar every year. The minimum standards set by the WHO are not met by any water source. These problems are exacerbated by the pandemic as hand washing is essential to protecting human health during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The constitution of Pakistan does not explicitly grant the right to water (as opposed to States, such as South Africa where the right is enshrined under section 27(b) which allows everyone the right to have access to sufficient water). However, in the landmark Supreme Court judgment of Naimatullah Khan v. Federation of Pakistan (2020 SCMR 622), C.J Gulzar Ahmed held that Art. 9, guaranteeing the right to life, ‘’… included the provision of drinking water’’.
The recognition of a right to ‘drinking water’ falls short of the recognition under international law that water is necessary for more than just drinking. Although the right to water is not specifically mentioned in articles 11 and 12 of the ICESCR, General Comment No. 15, which was adopted in 2003, provides a coherent right to water. It stipulates that ” The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.’’ Pakistan ratified ICESCR in 2008. Further, Pakistan is a State Party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which stipulates in Art 142(h), ‘’State Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in rural areas in order to ensure…the right to enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to…water supply.’’ Additionally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by Pakistan in 1990) stipulates in Art 24(2)(c ), “States Parties shall pursue full implementation…and, in particular, shall take appropriate measures to combat disease and malnutrition …clean drinking-water…’’. The government’s ratification of the aforementioned treaties has created long-lasting and legally binding obligations on the State of Pakistan that are enforceable under international law.
In line with these international obligations, Pakistan should recognise a right to water beyond the provision of drinking water. Second, the State should allocate appropriate monetary and other resources to realise the right to water. In particular, it should set a budget – divided between research, development of infrastructure and its continued maintenance. Lastly, the provision of water should be a top priority to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.