Tags: Asia and the Pacific

The children who have no clean water to drink, the women who fear for their safety, the young people who have no chance to receive a decent education have a right to better, and we have a responsibility to do better. All people have the right to safe drinking water, sanitation, shelter and basic services. – Ban Ki – moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations *


For the first time, the Philippines national development plan for 2011-2016 has been elaborated using a human rights-based approach to development. In 2010 – guided by this national development plan and with strong support from the United Nations system – the government created a tool box that can help improve the capacity of communities and water supply service providers to apply a human rights-based approach to the provision of water and sanitation services at the local level.

By applying a human rights-based approach to water and sanitation, the government aims to improve access to water and sanitation services for those communities in which access to water and sanitation are poorest.

The human right to water provides the overarching framework for the toolbox. The framework outlines the responsibilities of water service providers and the standards that need to be met for ensuring that the right to water and sanitation are realized. A human rights framework emphasizes the importance of participation and non-discrimination in the planning and management of these services.

Initial results from the piloting of the toolbox found that the communities are now involved in the planning and budgeting of facilities, with a notable increase in the participation of indigenous groups and women. This has helped draw a more accurate picture of the priorities and specific needs of these groups in regard to water and sanitation services. By establishing a social contract between the providers and users of services, formal accountability measurements are created that ensure that local service providers abide by their duties and that human rights standards for water and sanitation are met.


The Philippines is a multi-party, democratic republic with a population of close to 95 million. In 2009, the Philippines gained the status of a middle-income country. It has since shown resilience to recent external shocks, such as food and fuel price hikes, the global financial crisis and recession and the impact of natural disasters.

While the Philippines has experienced unprecedented economic growth over the past ten years, achieving inclusive growth that benefits the poor has been a continuing challenge. Poverty has remained at about the same level during the last decade, with a little over a quarter of the population below the poverty line.1 Ensuring that social services reach the poor remains a major challenge. Corruption and political patronage have contributed to a worsening gap between the rich and the poor. Moreover, the Philippines’ rapid population growth, which is one of the highest in Asia, has exacerbated poverty and fueled rapid urban population growth, overseas labour migration and unprecedented environmental degradation.2

To respond to these challenges, the Government of the Philippines has made inclusive growth the primary objective of its national development plan – the Medium Term Philippine Development Plan – for the next six years (2011-2016).

Through the national development plan, the government has made a significant effort to strengthen the nexus between human rights and development. For the first time, a human rights-based approach was applied in elaborating the national development plan, which resulted in specific attention to those groups most marginalized and excluded in the Philippines, such as women, indigenous peoples, children, persons living with HIV/AIDS, the homeless and agricultural workers. Emphasis has also been placed on participatory approaches, with the plan strongly promoting community-driven social development. In addition, the accountability of the government for ensuring that services are provided features prominently in the plan.

Lastly, human rights standards, such as the quality/safety, acceptability, accessibility and affordability3 of public services has guided the planning of development strategies and goals.

For example, in regard to health, the plan aims to “ensure equitable access to essential medicines, health services and technologies of good quality, availability and safety.” In terms of population strategies, the plan aims to “work for universal access (accessibility, availability and affordability) of all medically, ethically and legally approved family planning methods and services.” In education, the plan “reaffirms the highest priority for basic education as a right that should be enjoyed by all Filipinos.”4

Human rights situation

The Philippine Government has ratified eight of the nine core international United Nations human rights instruments, including the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The Philippine Constitution firmly recognizes the centrality of human rights and “guarantees full respect for human rights.” Among the rights enshrined in the Constitution are the rights to life, liberty, property, health, education, healthy environment, land, privacy and housing. The Philippines has created a Commission on Human Rights that is responsible for monitoring the situation of human rights in the country. Moreover, the country has a dynamic civil society and a vibrant media that help articulate the voice of the public on urgent human rights issues.

In terms of economic, social and cultural rights, one of the main challenges is meeting the basic needs of the poor and other vulnerable groups.

Indigenous peoples, who represent 15-20 percent of the population, in particular face high poverty rates and lack access to basic social services.

The lack of access to sufficient, acceptable, accessible and affordable water and sanitation is deeply rooted in poverty, weak governance, power imbalance and discrimination that directly impact the lives of persons living in poverty and the most vulnerable, effectively denying them a most basic human right: the right to water. – Karapatan, Kakayananat Kaalamansa Katubigan (The Human Rights-based Local Water and Sanitation Governance Toolbox)

Access to water and sanitation

Despite the Philippines having met the MDG target for water, the water supply and sanitation situation in the Philippines remains a major challenge. A 2010 UNICEF and WHO Joint Monitoring Programme report found that 7.4 million Filipinos are still without access to any type of improved water source7, while 24.2 million Filipinos lack access to sanitary toilets. In addition, national data sources indicate significant inequalities in coverage, particularly in the case of poor and rural households.

Certain provinces also have very low service coverage. These issues were raised as a major concern by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in October 2009, which expressed concern at the regional disparities in access to safe drinking water and sanitation.8

In April 2011, the National Anti-Poverty Commission identified 455 municipalities (out of 1,494) as being ‘waterless’. Waterless municipalities in this context were defined as municipalities (or baranguays) 9 where more than 50 percent of households have no access to safe water and where there is a particularly high incidence of water-borne and sanitation-related diseases and high rates of poverty. In these municipalities, people are forced daily to walk long distances to fetch potable water, queue for long hours at communal faucets and are exposed to health risks when using unsafe water.

Strategy: applying a human rights-based approach to local water and sanitation governance

Guided by the national development plan’s prioritization of the poorest and most marginalized communities, in 2010 the government designed a programme that focuses on improving access to water and sanitation in waterless municipalities. The six-year programme (2011-2016), titled Sagana at Ligtas na Tubig sa Lahat (Abundance of Natural Water for All), aims to develop the capacity of local water supply service providers, e.g., Local Government Units10, and local communities to plan, operate and manage water and sanitary systems themselves.

The programme also contributes infrastructure to the municipalities. As part of this programme, the government created a ’toolbox’ that could be used as a guide for water supply service providers and local communities. The toolbox is entitled Karapatan, Kakayanan at Kaalaman sa Katubigan  (The Human Rights-Based Local Water and Sanitation Governance Toolbox)11 . The United Nations provided technical and financial support for the development of this toolbox.

In particular, the United Nations supported the government’s efforts in introducing a human rights-based approach as the guiding framework for the toolbox and hence ensuring it was coherent and consistent with the rightsbased national development plan.

Applying a human rights-based approach to the toolbox broadened the way in which water and sanitation issues were viewed, going beyond an economic utility and infrastructure approach to understanding access to water and sanitation as a human right.

Using a human rights lens enabled the identification of multi-dimensional and deep-rooted obstacles underlying lack of access to water and sanitation, such as corruption, discrimination, inequality and lack of accountability, thereby ensuring that steps to address these obstacles were part of the water and sanitation strategies.

The United Nations agencies were involved in peer reviewing the toolkit for rights-based elements related to their specific mandates. For example, ILO reviewed the sections on the right to water and incorporated the ILO Conventions and tools into the toolbox, UN-Women incorporated material on gender analysis and the rights of women, UNICEF shared insights on the relationship between economics and human rights and suggested ways to translate the human rights principles of participation, non-discrimination and accountability into concrete programming interventions and UNFPA wrote the sections on sexual and reproductive health and the right to the highest attainable standard of health.

Water is much more than an economic good or a basic human need. Water is a human right: it is freedom, entitlement and a legally enforceable claim; it carries obligations and duties from which government and water service providers cannot escape. -Karapatan, Kakayananat Kaalamansa Katubigan (The Human Rights-based Local Water and Sanitation Governance Toolbox)

At the financial level, all members of the United Nations country team, under the leadership of UNDP, contributed to a common fund to cover the cost of developing the toolbox and rolling it out in 16 regions nationwide.12

At the national level, a number of actors were involved in developing the toolbox. Not only were water and sanitation experts consulted, but also civil society and other sectors, such as the Commission of Human Rights. The Commission had a specific role in peer reviewing the toolbox to ensure it met national and international human rights standards and principles.

The toolbox was first piloted in 36 of the waterless municipalities. It is now being rolled out in 455 waterless municipalities across the Philippine archipelago. To support the roll out process, regional water and sanitation learning networks are being established, composed of locally-based learning institutions and civil society organizations. These networks are being mobilized and trained on how to use the toolbox so that they can support capacity building processes at the local level.

Content of the Human Rights-Based Local Water and Sanitation Governance Toolbox

The Human Rights-Based Local Water and Sanitation Governance Toolbox proposes a framework to support the realization of the right to water and sanitation. The toolbox outlines both the human rights standards and the human rights principles that should guide policy and programming for water and sanitation services.

Human rights standards

For the right to water to be realized, specific standards need to be met.

These standards are outlined in General comment No. 15*, which defines the right to water as: “the right to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water and sanitation facilities and services for personal and domestic use.” The tool box uses these standards to set clear criteria and targets to guide local development actors in planning and monitoring water services.

For example, in order to respect the standard of ‘affordability’ of water and sanitation facilities, the toolbox suggests guidelines for ensuring fair and equitable tariffs.

Framing water and sanitation as a human right underlines the government’s obligations to ensure access to safe water and sanitation for personal and domestic uses. The toolbox outlines the duties that the Local Government Units hold in regard to facilitating the enjoyment of the right to water and sanitation by all. These responsibilities are broken down into three types of obligations: the need to respect, protect and fulfill. The obligation to respect  includes ensuring that an individual’s access to water and sanitation is not arbitrarily interfered with, by, for example, removing traditional or indigenous rights to a water source or from unlawfully diminishing or polluting a water source. The obligation to protect  includes preventing third parties from interfering with access to services, or polluting or inequitably extracting from a water source. The obligation to fulfill  includes providing the legislative and policy framework to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, safe and acceptable water and sanitation services, and providing the water supplies and infrastructure when individuals or a group are unable for reasons beyond their control, to realize that right themselves by the means at their disposal.

Human rights principles

The toolbox mainstreams the human rights principles of non-discrimination, participation and accountability into local water governance processes.

Non-Discrimination and participation: the toolbox encourages local water governance to engage in non-discriminatory activities and to pay special attention to those who are marginalized and disadvantaged from enjoying their right to water, including women, children, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, older persons, persons living with HIV and persons living in poverty. For example, while the toolbox recognizes key performance indicators often used in the water sector, such as water supply coverage or per capita consumption, the toolbox notes that these indicators rarely distinguish between the most vulnerable and marginalized and the non-marginalized. Hence, to promote the human rights principles of non-discrimination and equality, the toolbox recommends that: (a) water supply coverage indicators are disaggregated by vulnerable groups/ households; and (b) average tariffs are used as an indicator for water affordability by multiplying average tariff by average consumption, then comparing whether the amount is equivalent to, or less than, five percent of the disposable income of households living in poverty.

Moreover, the toolbox provides guidelines on how, at the municipal level, Local Government Units can facilitate consultative processes with those groups most affected by lack of access to water and sanitation. In these consultations the Local Government Units and the marginalized groups jointly identify the challenges they face and realistic solutions to address them.

This consultation process ensures that water and sanitation facilities provided by the government are designed around the specific needs of the target groups. As a next step, local communities are trained to manage and maintain water services themselves.

Community participation during the planning and implementation stages of services and facilities instills a sense of ownership by local communities.

Accountability: Corruption and mismanagement are major challenges in the supply of water facilities. The toolbox recommends control and mitigation measures through which corruption can be minimized or eradicated. For example, risks of administrative corruption, such as fraud and kickbacks and bribery, can be addressed by ensuring the public availability of all important decisions, stricter implementation of procurement laws and active community monitoring.


While the project is at an early stage of implementation, some preliminary results are emerging. Changing perspectives on how to plan for water and sanitation utilities

Prior to the toolbox, decisions over water and sanitation services were supply driven. The national government was planning based on its perspective, which resulted in a lack of ownership by local communities for managing the facilities.

With the mainstreaming of a human rights-based approach, it became clear that users need to be involved in the planning stages, including the budgeting of facilities and identification of where facilities should be built. Now, for the first time, the national government is planning access to water from the perspective of the communities they serve.

By gathering information from residents themselves, a more accurate picture has been painted of the water and sanitation conditions in pilot areas.

The adoption of affordable tariffs that reflect the community’s willingness and ability to pay, the involvement of community members through newly-created local water associations and the upgrading to household connections (as requested by members of the water associations) has also paved the way for more efficient use of water.

This in turn has resulted in extended availability of supply and alleviation of pressure on water sources.

Localized Customer Service Code One of the most significant innovations of the toolbox has been the adoption of Localized Customer Service Codes in the 36 pilot waterless municipalities. The Customer Service Code is a social contract or mutual agreement forged between the users (the communities, represented through local water associations) and providers of water (Local Government Units). The Code establishes the standards and parameters for measuring the quantity and quality of water services (informed by the normative standards of the human right to water), outlines the respective responsibilities of both parties in operating and maintaining the water facilities, and sets tariff rates for water services agreed to by the community. Working through water associations, poor and marginalized groups were given the chance to say how much they could afford to pay for water which was then reflected in the tariff structure decreed in the Code. With the adoption of the Code, and an affordable tariff structure agreed to by the community, there has been an increase in pilot communities in the number of households covered by water supplies from 20 percent to 90 percent. Moreover, the quality of services and the level of customer satisfaction have also significantly increased. This is evident by a 10-15 percent increase in membership in local water associations, particularly among marginalized groups.

The adoption of the Code has been especially successful in the pilot communities in improving access to water and sanitation services for indigenous peoples and women.

Before introducing the human rights-based approach, indigenous peoples were not participating in decisions around water and sanitation services at the local level.

Without consultative mechanisms or any concrete documents protecting their interests or outlining water provider responsibilities, many indigenous peoples were intimidated to become members, did not trust those managing the system and feared that they would not be able to pay the fees imposed. With the toolbox, indigenous peoples were made aware of their right to be provided with safe and adequate potable water that meets the Philippine National Standards for Drinking Water. Most importantly, this right was affirmed in the Code, a legally binding document, and the responsibilities of the local water providers defined. This knowledge empowered indigenous peoples to demand better services from water providers. As a result of the social contract introduced by the Customer Service Code, and the training that accompanied it, there has been an increase in the number of indigenous peoples – from 0 to 141 – that participate as members of water associations. This participation has resulted in a greater understanding by the Local Government Units of indigenous peoples’ cultural norms and beliefs in regard to water and sanitation. The Local Government Units were subsequently better able to take these considerations into account in their education initiatives on water and sanitation practices.

Local Government Units have also become more aware of the high risks of conflict over the use of water sources when indigenous peoples consider the source as sacred. To address these sensitive issues, a specific memorandum of agreement was developed to recognize and protect the cultural practices of indigenous peoples.

Finally, in many of the associations women are playing an important role as board members, treasurers, tariff collectors and presidents. Through this involvement, women’s specific needs for water and sanitation services, such as the need to shorten the time to fetch water and to have potable drinking water consistently available for their families, are reflected in the water Service Codes.

Lessons Learned

  1. A national development policy that incorporates a human rights-based approach can provide the framework and momentum needed to start applying this approach to various development sectors, such as water and sanitation.
  2. The human right to water can provide a guiding framework for designing and implementing water and sanitation programs, ensuring that goals and targets focus on ensuring the right to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water and sanitation facilities, and that the process towards reaching those goals is informed by human rights principles.
  3. Using a human rights lens broadens the analysis of water and sanitation matters, integrating, for example, issues of discrimination, corruption and weak governance. In doing so, it enables development practitioners to design more appropriate and informed policy and programmatic responses that specifically target these issues.


  1. The World Bank, Philippines Overview:www.worldbank.org/en/country/philippines/overview.
  2. Philippines UNDAF 2011-2016: www.undp.org.ph/Downloads/knowledge_products/UnitedNations/UNDAF%202012-2018.pdf.
  3. These normative standards have been defined by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in their interpretation of the content of the rights enshrined in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  4. www.neda.gov.ph/PDP/2011-2016/CHAPTER%201.pdf.
  5. The Philippines, Universal Periodic Review, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review. The Philippines 23 May 2008 A/HRC/8/28.
  6. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, Mr. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Mission to the Philippines, March 2003: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G03/115/21/PDF/G0311521.pdf?OpenElement.
  7. Access to an “improved water source” refers to access through either a household connection, public standpipe, borehole, protected dug well, protected spring or rainwater collection.
  8. Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations, The Philippines, October 2009, CRC/C/PHL/CO/3-4.
  9. A barangay is the smallest administrative division in the Philippines and is the native Filipino term for a village, district or ward.
  10. The Local Government Code of 1991 divided the Philippines into three administrative levels: provinces, municipalities and barangays. All three are called Local Government Units. The code devolved basic services to these units, including most health services and infrastructure provision, as well as the authority to create their own revenue sources and to enter into international aid agreements.
  11. Human Rights Based Local Water and Sanitation Governance Water Toolbox: www.mdgf1919-salintubig.org.ph/lwg/.
  12. United Nations funding assistances was received through the UNDP Spanish Achievement Fund MDGF 1919.

Related Resources