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Tucked among the assertive minarets of Islamic Cairo’s mosques,the jewelled abayas which swoop like phantoms and the motorbikes kicking up the dust from the streets sits the Sabil Kuttub Mohamed Ali. There were once more than 300 sabils across Cairo during the Ottoman period from 1517 – 1867. The elaborate architecture of the building, with painted ceiling and poetry carved into the walls belies its purpose which is fundamentally social. Sabils, in the Ottoman period were created to offer free water and kuttabs were schools which offered primary school education from the same building. Sabil’s were built by prominent and wealthy men and women as free standing buildings, separate from government or other ruling institutions and while they highlighted the wealth and importance of their founder, they also facilitated necessary services to poorer citizens. Thus when Mohamed Ali built this sabil kuttab in 1816 this one building was built to serve two basic human needs.

In our visit to the sabil, we are taken underground to a vast damp cavern, where once the Nile’s water was brought and stored for redistribution. It is possible to observe the hole in the ceiling from where water was pulled in buckets and distributed to the city’s inhabitants. At this time there were no water infrastructural systems to provide water to homes, instead people gathered water from the Nile, bringing it to the city where they sold it to people in their homes. Sabils were intended to provide the same function, however, they provided water close to people’s homes free of charge.

When walking around the sabil, its plaques and interior poetry remember the generosity of Mohamed Ali, but also highlight very clearly the sabil kuttab’s social purpose. One of the poems from the wall reads:

‘The water of life becomes the
jewels of the pure fountain,
readily available for all to share,
thus was it inspired by God,
that the people be given it,
rich and poor alike drink freely,
without the slightest debt.’

On visiting the sabil kuttab it is hard not to think of modern-day Egypt and whether in our current age of development – of water distribution systems and international guarantees and action plans to ensure human life –  the needs of the poor are met or even catered to. Water networks are in place in almost all urban areas yet the city’s poor are required to pay for the water (even if these costs are low, they are often above what the poor can afford).

On a global scale, almost a billion people lack access to clean drinking water. Despite this, the human right to water under international law lacks clarity and definition. The right to water is not protected under any of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights 1966 or the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966. The UN covenant committee bodies (CESCR and the HRC) have made attempts to read the right to water as implicitly part of the right to life (Art 6 ICCPR) and the right to food and health (Articles 11 and 12 ICESCR). This culminated in the 2010 General Comment 15 of the CESCR which delineates the terms of the right to water as an international legal concept. However, this protection lacks not only legal force but also clarity, as it allows concessions to private companies and other water providers, permitting cut offs and charges in water provision.

Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation visited Egypt in 2009. In her report she concedes that charges are a part of water provision but advocates for special consideration of vulnerable households in water supply, proposing reduced tariffs (but not free water) for these sections of the population. Indeed, she states that the ‘criterion for human rights standards… is tariff and connection designed through social policies that makes them affordable, including to those living in extreme poverty’ (See Albuquerque, ‘Report of the independent expert on the issue of human  rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation’,Human Rights Council Fifteenth session, (June 2010) A/HRC/15/31 16 – 17 [47] [50]).

Indeed, in modern times many people pay above the odds for a service which has been recognised since early civilisation as a human necessity. It seems when visiting Cairo’s sabils that modern development has sought progress in one sense while removing us from that same progress in another sense. While the modern powerful of today’s national and international governments and companies concentrate on efficiency, infrastructure and cost recovery; they seem to do so at the expense of human and social necessity. Cairo’s sabils are a reminder that water has been a constant object of social interest and that there are many alternatives to modern water distribution which can offer equal and free access to all.