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Safeguarding the right to healthy water

Published: 14 March 2008

Water from the tap is taken for granted in the developed world, but the reality is that over 100 million Europeans still do not have access to safe drinking water. More worrying is that in the pan-European region 37 children die of diarrhoea each day due to the lack of access to safe water. The basic human right of access to safe and healthy water clearly continues to be a problem in the pan-European region.

At the United Nations Office in Geneva, a special independent body has started work under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the Regional Office for Europe of the World Health Organization (WHO/Europe). The Compliance Committee was created to supervise and ensure compliance with the London Protocol on Water and Health to the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes. This Protocol aims to improve access to safe water as a fundamental human right in the pan-European region, which covers 56 countries. The environmental authorities involved in this effort are now working to expand participation to the global level. The Committee, composed of nine independent experts, scientists and environmental lawyers, held its first meeting on 12 March, appointing Mr. Attila Tanzi, a Professor of International Law from Italy, as Chair and Mrs. Ilona Drulyte, a public health expert from Lithuania, as Vice-Chair. As a first step, the Committee adopted rules allowing for communications from the general public – be they NGOs or individual citizens – concerning failures by Governments and their administrations to meet the requirements of the Protocol.

The Compliance Committee will ensure prevention, control and reduction of water-related diseases and hence will increase the number of European citizens with access to safe drinking-water and adequate sanitation. The incidence of infectious diseases caused by poor-quality drinking water is often highest in children aged 6 to 11 months. More than 170,000 cases of water-related diseases were reported in 2006, including over 120,000 cases of viral hepatitis A.

The spread of water-transmitted diseases is especially common in Eastern Europe, where 16 per cent of the population still do not have access to drinking water in their homes. The situation is even more severe in rural areas, where more than half of the population lacks a reliable supply of safe water and/or adequate sanitation systems.

In Western Europe, there is a growing awareness of the importance of emerging diseases and the new challenges posed by global climate change. With more frequent and heavy rainfall projected, as well as increased periods of drought in the Mediterranean region and water stress in other areas, and rising global temperatures in lakes, rivers and seas, water quality and quantity will be affected more than before. This is expected to lead to unexpected outbreaks of water-borne diseases, increased harmful algal bloom, and the creation of environmental niches for previously unknown disease-transmitting organisms.

The implementation of the London Protocol, reinforced by the Compliance Committee, will make a decisive contribution to achieving two of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, namely Goal 4 (halving by 2015 the proportion of the population not having access to improved water supply and adequate sanitation) and Goal 7 (reducing child mortality in the under-five population by two thirds).

More information on the Protocol is available on websites of UNECE (www.unece.org/env/water/text/text_protocol.htm) and WHO/Europe (www.euro.who.int/watsan).

For further information, contact:




Francesca Bernardini

Environmental Affairs Officer

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)

CH - 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Tel.: +41(0)22 917 2463

Fax: +41(0)22 917 0107

E-mail: francesca.bernardini@unece.org


Roger Aertgeerts

Regional Adviser, Water and Sanitation

WHO Regional Office for Europe

Via Francesco Crispi 10

I-00187 Rome, Italy


Tel.: +39 06 4877528

Fax: +39 06 4877599





Charlotte Griffiths

Senior Public Information Officer

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)

CH - 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland


Tel.: +41(0)22 917 44 44

Fax: +41(0)22 917 05 05


Cristiana Salvi

Technical Officer, Communication and Advocacy

WHO Regional Office for Europe

Via Francesco Crispi 10

I-00187 Rome, Italy


Tel.: +39 06 4877543

Mobile: +39 348 0192305

Fax: +39 06 4877599


Ref: ECE/ENV/08/P02

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Information Unit

Palais des Nations, 

CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Tel.: +41 (0) 22 917 44 44

Fax: +41 (0) 22 917 05 05