Do Americans enjoy the Human Right to Water and Sanitation?

January 23, 2019

In a recent segment on NPR affiliate KLCC, Oregon journalist Denise Silfee points out that the UN General Assembly affirmed the human right to water and sanitation in 2010 while the United States failed to join the majority of nations voting for the resolution. In her interview with people sheltering in a Rest Stop managed by the City of Eugene, Silfee notes that “shelter is not the same as housing: access to running water is not a requirement for approving a Rest Stop in Eugene.”  While there are two portable toilets nearby, Rest Stop residents need to find their own water for handwashing, showers, cooking and drinking.

When Circle of Blue senior reporter Brett Walton asks experts to predict key US water news to watch for in 2019, the Pacific Institute’s Heather Cooley says, “We live in one of the healthiest countries in the world and the fact that we can’t provide basic water and sanitation services is a tragedy.” Will Sarni of Water Foundry agrees, noting that equity and affordability are issues that are seriously under-reported. Most people see WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) as an international problem rather than as “prevalent here at levels that would be shocking.”

So why is this the case? Most Americans seem to agree that their fellow citizens should not suffer from hunger or thirst. Consequently, nearly every local jurisdiction has a food bank and a soup kitchen and the federal government continues to administer the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “food stamps”. Similarly, there’s support for the availability of drinking water in the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, both of which date from the early 1970s.

But is there any broad assurance that individual Americans can meet other essential biological requirements, such as access to a toilet and to water for hygiene purposes? By and large, there is not.

One remarkable exception, however, is California. Signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2012, California Assembly Bill 685 states:  It is hereby declared to be the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes. This amendment to the state Water Code applies to all state agencies, including the Department of Public Health.

In 2014, the worsening California drought pushed Gov. Brown to declare a state of emergency and make mandatory a 25% reduction in water use. Later that year, a report entitled Californians without Safe Water and Sanitation estimated 750,000 Californians – a population of nearly 40 million – lived without safe drinking water. While the report lacks several data sets, it identifies types and sizes of water systems: private domestic well, local small water system, state small water system, tribal water system, and community water systems. Sanitary treatment systems fall into three categories: Onsite wastewater treatment systems (septic systems), tribal wastewater systems, or centralized wastewater treatment systems with sewer collection. Approximately 10% of Californians rely on septic systems but the number of these that are failing is not reported.

Tribal systems have the best data and reveal 9,499 homes lacking adequate sanitation. The report recommends that state agencies and tribal governments establish a workgroup so that tribal communities could advise the state on the issues and help plan, develop, and implement water projects, services, and policies of state agencies.

Note that in her 2011 report to the UN General Assembly, Catarina de Albuquerque, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water and Sanitation, had highlighted the plight of California’s  Native Americans as well as of homeless people living in Sacramento and farm workers in surrounding areas.

The State Water Board took over oversight of drinking water systems from the Department of Public Health in July 2014. Later the same year, California voters approved Proposition 1 to designate $US 7.1 billion for water projects, including funding for poor communities. Local agencies could access zero interest loans to maintain their systems and to provide eligible residents water efficiency upgrades and low interest loans for septic systems. A law authorizing the State Water Board to order a well-functioning system to extend its service to neighboring areas lacking adequate supplies of safe drinking water went into effect in 2015. Later the same year, Gov. Brown signed Assembly Bill 401 which provides for the nation’s first water affordability program.

Today California has a Human Right to Water Portal with data on accessibility, affordability and systems that are out of compliance with state and federal standards. Moreover, progress toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – which apply to all nations rather than only those in the developing world – is measured by the WHO-Unicef Joint Monitoring Program.

The ACLU of Northern California and the Pacific Institute continue to track California’s progress. A Survey of Efforts to Achieve Universal Access to Water and Sanitation in California covers the work of academic and civil society organizations which have collaborated with local communities still lacking access. Of special interest is the recommendation to “make the right to sanitation explicit.” Authors are concerned that there’s no there is no reliable, centralized information on small-scale sanitation systems. Knowing where septic systems are concentrated is required for any plan of action to fix them. Moreover, local agencies need to collect better data and post it on the Human Right to Water  Portal.  As the Survey concludes, Until comprehensive sanitation information is collected and disseminated, policy makers, nonprofits, and citizens will be deprived of information they require to develop and advocate for system improvements, and advocacy organizations will have to divert resources to data collection that should be performed by governmental agencies.

This year PHLUSH will be keeping an eye on developments relating to the human right to water, sanitation and hygiene in the United States. Please alert us to stories we may miss. We welcome comments and contributions.


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