February 21, 2013 00:00 By Pravit Rojanaphruk The Nation
Thailand should set up an independent water-monitoring regulator, because water and sanitation service providers are to a large extent unaccountable, said Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.
“I call upon the government of Thailand to establish strong accountability mechanisms to ensure full compliance by all – including the private sector – with the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation,” said de Albuquerque, who was in Thailand on a week-long visit earlier this month and will report her findings to the UN in the middle of this year.
She also said that the government must strengthen its supervisory role, as decentralisation has given the authority and responsibility for providing water and sanitation “thoroughly to local authorities”.
De Albuquerque said groups such as undocumented migrant workers, stateless people, hilltribes and sex workers are often deprived of access to clean and safe drinking water.
“I would like to remind the Thai government that every individual, regardless of nationality, language or ethnicity, is entitled to the human rights to water and sanitation, and their legal status cannot exempt the state from its obligations to ensure access to water and sanitation.”
She cited a visit to a migrant construction workers’ site in Chiang Mai where 300 people had to share 10 toilets that were not segregated by sex, and had one open bathing point shared by all workers, including 70 women and 40 children. “When I asked a woman how she bathes in the open, especially during menstruation, she said to me ‘I just shut my eyes and wash myself as quickly as possible, so that it’s done’,” de Albuerque said.
Elsewhere, de Albuerque learnt that an informal settlement on Bangkok’s outskirts had, after 10 years of struggle, finally managed to gain access to tap water. “However, I was surprised to learn that, being connected as a group of almost 30 households meant that the tariff for industries applied to them, meaning they pay 2.5 times more per cubic metre than an individual private household.”
Another issue highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur during her first visit to the Kingdom was the pervasive and growing consumption of bottled drinking water, which very much alarmed her.
De Albuerque said she was shocked to learn that in Thailand, hotels, schools and companies have their own “branded” bottled drinking water, and that even a celebrity has a bottled water business branded after her name.
These plastic bottles, she said, were causing a lot of environmental problems, while poor people could not afford to buy bottled water. “It’s our human right to have affordable drinking water in our homes. It’s about democracy and equality. There should be a movement to stop drinking bottled water.”
Arriving for the news conference, de Albuerque seemed embarrassed to find that UN staff had provided half a dozen plastic bottles of water, and ordered them to be removed from her table.