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Post by Anna Liles, Graduate Research Assistant at the UNC EFC

The widespread economic and public health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been met with many policy changes such as moratoriums on water disconnections. Water disconnection moratoriums are meant to ease the financial burden of people facing hardship because of the pandemic, and to increase access to safe public health measures such has hand washing. These moratoriums have also served to increase discussion about disconnection policy in the US. One policy that is in direct conflict with water disconnection is the United Nations’ (UN) Right to Water (RTW), recognized as an international human rights law in 2010. The UN RTW seeks to ensure that all persons have access to “…sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.”1 As described by the UN the public health measure of the RTW is a necessary prerequisite to the recognition of other human rights, such as the Right to Life.2 While the US and many other countries have not incorporated this Right into their constitutions, some countries have chosen to adopt the RTW into their own national policies. This report will look at three examples that each represent a different part of the world and different implications for national policy. First, the United Kingdom (UK) stands out as a European country that banned disconnections before the UN declaration. South Africa is among many African nations that have adopted a right to water, and provides interesting insight into the challenges of actualizing a national RTW across a country with varying levels of infrastructure. Finally, this post will examine California, the first US state to recognize the RTW. The UK, South Africa, and the US State of California have all included the RTW in their constitutions and their disconnection policies reflect a desire to maintain accessibility for all their residents.

The UK is an example of the most extensive form of RTW disconnection policies The UK has a nationwide ban on disconnections for residential customers, and therefore 100% of all UK residents have access to water.3 This ban was brought into effect about a decade before the UN RTW declaration. The UK RTW and disconnection ban were designed to protect the population against diseases associated with poor sanitation.4 These public health motivations align well with the motivations for the UN RTW and the motivations for COVID-19 related moratoriums, as noted above. Although residential customers are never disconnected from water for nonpayment, there are other avenues through which water companies can collect payment for unpaid bills, such as leveraging a debt collector or a court order to collect money.3

With similar aspirations to provide all residents with access to water, South Africa has also adopted a national RTW. The South African RTW Act requires that the government provide at least 6000 liters per household per month of safe clean water and that no household be without water access for more than 7 days of the year.5 However, this policy is hard to implement because the infrastructure of South Africa’s water system is inconsistent across the country, which contributes to disparities in water access. People living in rural areas often rely on local wells or hand pumps for water and about 19% of the rural population lacks access to a reliable water supply.6 While the aims of the South African government are clearly to embrace the UN RTW, limited resources make the RTW impossible to implement nationwide and are instead contingent on regional water supply. South Africa demonstrates that the RTW can be important for impacting policy change, but consistent water infrastructure is a necessary piece of actualizing universal water access.

The US does not have a federally recognized RTW, but the RTW can be adopted into an individual state’s constitution. The first state to do this is California, which echoed the UN RTW with statewide RTW in 2013.7 In 2018, California expanded upon the RTW with a second bill designed to specifically address disconnection policy. One section of this 2018 bill is the Water Shutoff Protection Act.8 Under the Water Shutoff Protection Act, utilities must provide customers with alternative payment methods for delinquent bills as well as avenues with which customers can contest disconnect. The act aims to ease the effect of disconnection on citizens citing reasons such as public health and inequity in the impact of water disconnections.8 Although this act does not eliminate water disconnections for nonpayment, it provides a clear link between the RTW and a decrease in water disconnections.

Disconnection policy is inherently complicated and regionally specific. The UK’s approach demonstrates the success RTW policy can have at a national level while South Africa’s example illustrates the challenges RTW policy can face when implemented across a large country with varying levels of infrastructure. California’s choice to use the RTW to propel change in disconnection policy, even though the US as a whole does not recognize the RTW, highlights that policies need not be adopted at the country-level in all cases. The RTW is not the only factor that can lead a country to decrease or eliminate disconnections. Yet, the RTW is a powerful tool that can be used as a basis for water policy, and as a policy instrument for establishing or upholding a ban on disconnections.


Works Cited:

  1. UN-Water. “Human Rights.” UN-Water (blog). Accessed May 21, 2021.
  2. International Decade for Action “Water for Life” 2005 – 2015. “The Human Right to Water and Sanitation.” United Nations. Accessed May 21, 2021.,a%20life%20in%20human%20dignity.&text=15%20also%20defined%20the%20right,for%20personal%20and%20domestic%20uses.
  3. “If You Don’t Pay Your Water Bill.” Accessed May 21, 2021.
  4. Sean Coughlan and Rupert Jones. “Water Companies Are Intimidating Customers and Deliberately Getting around the Ban on Debt Disconnections.” the Guardian, September 29, 2007.
  5. “The Right to Water & Sanitation.” South African Human Rights Comission, n.d.
  6. “Water Access in South Africa | Water for All.” Accessed May 21, 2021.
  7. California Legislative Information. “WATER CODE DIVISION 1. GENERAL STATE POWERS OVER WATER ,” January 1, 2013.,%2C%20cooking%2C%20and%20sanitary%20purposes.
  8. California Legislative Information. “SB-998 Discontinuation of Residential Water Service: Urban and Community Water Systems,” September 28, 2018.


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