Identifying how and to what extent the poor and most vulnerable in society are able to demand and access safe water as they define it is the practical realization of the human right to water. The explicit international recognition of the right to water and sanitation in 2010 is significant in that it obligates nations to recognize safe water for human consumption primarily as a social good, a significant point of contention after decades of global water politics. However, there remains a large gap between the international human right to water and on-the-ground determinants of water access and reliability. How can the right to water turn from being an abstract legal principle into policies and interventions that can be implemented and measured? This paper con- tributes to the considerable literature on the right to water and basic services delivery by assessing three critical mechanisms that inhibit the ability of the urban poor to exercise their right to water. Of particular concern in this paper is the prevalent role of small-scale providers and household co-production, the so-called non-state actors on whom much of the world’s poor depend to provide water and other basic services. Drawing from the normative content of the rights framework and literature on rights-based approaches to devel- opment against evidence of how states are undertaking water sector reforms and implementing the right to water and sanitation, this paper argues for the need to reconsider the concept of third-party duty bearers. Governments have an explicit role in maintaining dual systems of sanctioned and unsanctioned urban spaces and forms of service delivery that result in inequitable access to water and sanitation in violation of human rights.