End Shameful Violations of the Right to Water

We imagine a United States where everyone's basic human right to safe, affordable and clean water is ensured: in cities, in small towns and rural areas, in black and brown neighborhoods across the country. It is past time for the U.S. government to join us.
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This piece was co-authored by Ejim Dike, executive director of the US Human Rights Network.

It is a little known fact that across the United States, many communities are in crisis, facing government decisions that leave families without water for drinking, cooking, bathing or sanitation. Across our nation, from Alabama to Michigan and North Carolina to California, people continue to be denied access to this vital resource. We need urgent action by President Barack Obama to immediately halt this violation of public health and human dignity.

In 2010, the United Nations recognized water and sanitation services as a basic human right--one that is fundamental for life. But in the United States, one the world's richest economies, our elected leaders have failed to prioritize providing safe and affordable water and sanitation. In some communities, the most vulnerable residents--the working poor, the elderly and black and brown communities--are denied access to water.

Often, water in low-income communities is contaminated because the tax base does not exist to fix infrastructure. In other places, high unemployment means that large numbers of people, often women and children, do not have enough income to pay their water bills. In addition to the indignity of lacking clean and safe water and sanitation, not having these essential services exposes people to potential illness, loss of their homes and children and felony charges.

This shameful violation of the right to water and sanitation is widespread and often affects people of color--mass water shutoffs in Detroit; little or no sewage treatment in Alabama's African American communities; pesticides polluting drinking water wells in Latino communities in California; and radioactive contamination of the drinking water supply of a Native American community in New Mexico.

On October 23, some of those directly affected will testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an international body that monitors human rights abuses in the Americas. A broad coalition of grassroots organizations, human rights and national organizations, individuals and universities worked together to secure this hearing and demand action by the U.S. government.

As income inequality grows across the country each year, many of our largest cities are shutting off water service to thousands of households that cannot afford to pay their water bills. Communities of color, particularly African Americans, are disproportionately losing their water service.

In Detroit, where 41 percent of residents live in poverty and 99 percent of the poor are African American, more than 33,000 households lost water service for nonpayment of bills in 2014. The shutoffs continue unabated today. In Baltimore, where a quarter of residents live in poverty and 63 percent of the population is African American, low-income renters--predominantly people of color--are at risk of losing their water service because of unaffordable and unpaid water bills. A study of shutoffs in Boston revealed that communities of color, including African American, Latino and immigrant populations, are 10 times more likely to be threatened with water shutoffs than high income, largely white areas.

It's a vicious cycle--many people scramble to pay their water bills, but can't afford to also cover their rent or mortgage, other utilities, healthcare and food. Renters are being evicted, families are being separated and in some places, like Detroit, people face threats of felonies and jail time for connecting their own water.

Across the nation, lack of federal funding has left low-income communities, especially in the rural south, in desperate need of money for the infrastructure necessary to treat sewage. Centralized sewer systems are rare, and the state has pushed the burden of treating wastewater on households, many of which cannot afford their own septic systems.

Alabama exemplifies this problem. The Alabama Department of Public Health estimates that 40 to 90 percent of households in rural areas have inadequate or no septic systems, and half of the existing ones are not fully functional or are expected to fail in the future. The problem is particularly stark in Lowndes County, Ala., where 70 percent of the population is African-American and only one in five residents is connected to a municipal sewer system. In this impoverished county, families are being arrested, fined and even face jail time simply because they lack the means to install and upgrade their own septic systems.

In the western United States, industrial and agricultural contamination threatens the increasingly limited water supplies of Latino and Indigenous Peoples. Rural, predominately Latino communities in California's agricultural regions are often exposed to contaminants that have been linked to serious and debilitating illnesses. They have very little recourse to change the quality and safety of their water or seek remedy for the health impacts of the contamination.

Nationally, Native Americans are nearly 10 times more likely than white households to be without water and sanitation service. And contamination from mining, agricultural and industrial operations has destroyed innumerable culturally significant water sources for Indigenous Peoples throughout the Southwest.

The Red Water Pond Road community within the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico faces a frightening risk to its water supply. The community, which lies near three uranium mining and processing sites, has seen increasing levels of uranium in its drinking water source. Community members have requested relocation, but state, federal and local governments have refused to provide water infrastructure to facilitate the move.

When tens of thousands of people, mostly people of color, lack safe and clean water and adequate wastewater treatment, it is indicative of broader, systemic issues that need immediate redress.

Now is the time to stop these shameful abuses of human rights. We need an immediate moratorium on mass water service shutoffs and mining and other extractive industries that contaminate groundwater supplies. The Obama administration must take urgent action and extend emergency assistance to restore water service to households disconnected for inability to pay; provide wastewater treatment in poor, rural communities; and remediate groundwater supplies contaminated by extractive and agricultural industries.

The United States also needs to end the criminalization of poor people whose only "crime" is being unable to afford drinking water service or wastewater treatment.

We imagine a United States where everyone's basic human right to safe, affordable and clean water is ensured: in cities, in small towns and rural areas, in black and brown neighborhoods across the country. It is past time for the U.S. government to join us.

You can learn more about these blatant abuses of the human right to water from the people directly experiencing them by livestreaming the hearing on October 23 at 4:15 p.m. ET.