America's Poor and the Human Right to Water

Last Sunday's 60 Minutes shed a light on an underreported fact: soon, roughly one in four children in the U.S. will live below the poverty level. The piece, reported by Scott Pelley, highlighted one family living in a motel and another that was taken in by their neighbors after lost income forced them out of their homes.

It's that face of America that Catarina de Albuquerque witnessed at the end of her U.S. visit last week. De Albuquerque, the UN independent expert on water and sanitation, visited the U.S. to examine human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. What she found was not befitting of the world's richest nation.

The human right to water and sanitation entitles everyone to water and sanitation that is available, accessible, affordable, acceptable and safe without discrimination. But de Albuquerque found that people of color and Native Americans disproportionately suffer insufficient access to clean water and sanitation services. While less than one percent of non-native American households have no access to safe water and/or wastewater disposal, 13 percent of Native Americans lack access. And for every one percent increase in one Boston ward's percentage of people of color, the number of threatened cut offs increases by 4 percent, according to a study on the racial impact of water pricing and shut-off policies by the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, cited by de Albuquerque.

She described her visit to a homeless community where she met Tim, the "sanitation technician" for the community. His sanitation solution? He collects bags of human waste (varying in weight from 130-230 pounds) and hauls them by bike to a local public restroom a few miles away. He empties the contents in the public toilet, "packs the plastic bags with leftover residue inside a third plastic bag; ties it securely and disposes of them in the garbage; and then sanitizes his hands with water and lemon."

"The fact that Tim is left to do this is unacceptable, an affront to human dignity and a violation of human rights and it must be stopped. An immediate, interim solution is to ensure access to restrooms facilities in public places, including during the night," said de Albuquerque.

60 Minutes and de Albuquerque have both turned an uncomfortable eye on the state of America's poor. But when it comes to clean water and sanitation, a human right as recognized by the UN General Assembly last summer, we are unlikely to make strides when it comes to meeting the needs of the poorest Americans unless we commit more resources to do so. But Obama's 2012 budget cuts over half a billion in federal funding for wastewater infrastructure, and nearly $400 million for drinking water infrastructure. These budget cuts will make it harder for municipalities to provide safe drinking water and sanitation to average U.S. households, but the poorest Americans will be even more at risk of losing access to these basic human rights.

This post originally appeared on Food & Water Watch's blog.