Operationalizing metrics towards the Human Right to Water and Sanitation in Nicaragua


Researchers from UPC, UPM and UNAM at Matagalpa, Nicaragua (2012). Source: EScGD

Can compliance with human rights be measured? When in July 2010 the UN General Assembly solemnly proclaimed the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, it set researchers worldwide a demanding task: namely, monitoring progress on compliance of normative dimensions by right-holders, as it is perceived by duty-bearers. Rising to the challenge, a stream of research of EScGD – led by Óscar Flores – is working towards a set of indicators and methodologies suited to capture the messy intricacies of the human right to water and sanitation.

Our set of indicators stems from research that combines surveys carried out in Nicaragua and a comparative analysis of the work undertaken by other research groups worldwide. We initially developed our indicators upon a campaign carried out in 2009 across Jinotega and Matagalpa by the Coalición de Organizaciones por el Derecho al Agua (CODA). This project yielded a first operationalization of scientific metrics for the human right to water. To do so we built upon our prior research in Kenya and Tanzania. Accordingly, we parameterized a set of indicators for each of the dimensions singled out by the United Nations. The indicators constituted the basis for a composite index for each dimension. The index is premised upon multiplicative aggregation to account for the interdependence and implicit compensability of the different components.

Our set of indicators provides a concise yet penetrative picture of the fulfillment of the right to water in a cross-section of Nicaraguan communities. It reveals the critical condition of affordability, non-discrimination and participation, as well as relatively minor concerns with availability, physical accessibility and quality appear. Our study, for instance, emphasizes the extent to which participation may be suffering from the implicit and explicit barriers faced by the most destitute to take part in managing communitarian resources. The same citizens who see their participation curtailed often lack access to water, even when their communities benefit from a water supply system. Our analysis also unveils the difficulties lurking behind the operationalization of the human right to drinking water. Thus, for instance, without a minimum standard of water accessibility – which the UN has failed to agree upon – it becomes difficult to measure the relative progress towards availability. Moreover, continuity of supply needs to be factored in, albeit no consensus has been reached around a working definition. Last but not least, affordability is also hard to measure, given the reluctance of families to speak openly – or, even, to estimate – their own income.


Methodology. Source: Flores, O. et al. (2013)

Given the difficulties found in our first attempt at operationalization, from March to September 2012 we undertook a pilot yet comprehensive survey of the San Sebastián de Yalí municipality in collaboration with ONGAWA (a Spanish NGDO) and local authorities. The municipality, located in the central northern department of Jinotega, comprises 75 rural communities. Some difficulties arise from the fact that the Municipal Water and Sanitation Unit of San Sebastián de Yalí is manned by two specialists who must serve 22,500 people strewn over 402 km2.. We sought to underscore the contrasts between households served by CAPS-managed water supply systems and households that rely on self-provision. By doing so, we were in a position to reveal inequities in the different dimensions of the right to water. With this study, we learnt that:

– A basic service level is not enough, and thus, a multidimensional approach to evaluate progress is required.

– Our methodology is able to single out pockets within rural communities that do not benefit from the same services as the rest of the community. This is particularly useful for resource allocation towards improving the conditions of those minorities.

– Standards adapted to local conditions for the operationalization of the right to water are needed, even in the absence of a consensus amongst experts. It is crucial that such standard indicators are developed by means of thorough research attuned to local conditions.

We perceive an opportunity to ameliorate mainstream methodologies. Thus, on the one hand, we acknowledge the need to rely on outcome indicators – as provided by the updated Joint Monitoring Programme -, as well as of structural and process indicators for the obligations of duty bearers – as offered by the Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water. On the other hand, nonetheless, we posit an approach that aims to be more comprehensive and looks beyond right holders.

Equipped with such methods, we believe we can help setting up a more ambitious post-2015 development agenda as regards to access to safe water and sanitation. We recommend to do so by incorporating additional measurements, such as the proportion of households that have been disconnected from water supply at least once a year, acceptability elements, or the regulatory and policy frameworks to control the pollution of water sources. One way forward would be to carry out such a kind of analysis at different scales, looking for the implications for monitoring systems both at national and local level.


Indicators. Source: Flores, O. et al. (2013)