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UN expert's report says far too many Americans lack access to safe, affordable water and sanitation
Date of Publication:09/12/2011
UN expert’s report says far too many
Americans lack access to safe, affordable water and
The report and recommendations, compiled by Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN’s independent expert for water and sanitation, is based on a two-week tour of the United States last spring. She concluded that despite massive improvements in water supply systems throughout the 20th century, many population groups already marginalized because of factors such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, or income do not enjoy the same water security they have a human right to expect.
"Although the vast majority of the population in the United States enjoys regular access to safe drinking water and sanitation, the analysis reveals categories of people who are excluded," said de Albuquerque. "Individuals who do not have regular access, who face obstacles in access or are otherwise deprived of the same level of access as the general population, also generally face discrimination in society more broadly."
The people with whom the independent expert met on her U.S. visit and who are facing obstacles in their enjoyment of the rights to water and sanitation were disproportionately African American, Latino, American Indian, homeless, or otherwise disadvantaged, she reported.
The report was scheduled to be presented by de Albuquerque to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
The independent expert’s mission and report touched on issues in several regions around the nation where she visited, including northern California, Boston and Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. She also heard testimony from civil society organizations and community members from Alabama, Alaska, Maine, Michigan, Puerto Rico and West Virginia. Among the communities she visited or met with were a Native American tribe in California, and homeless families in both rural and urban settings.
"The independent expert’s report raises serious concerns about the millions of Americans who are denied equal access or who face discriminatory policies that reflect differences in race, ethnicity, social and economic class, or gender," said Patricia Jones, manager of the environmental justice program for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which coordinated the participation by nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups from affected communities across the country.
"In the United Sates, it is often the poorest and the most marginalized groups that lack access to sanitation," said de Albuquerque. "Ensuring access to adequate sanitation for all is not only fundamental for human dignity and privacy, but it is also key to protecting water quality. States must progressively extend safe sanitation services, particularly to rural and deprived urban areas."
Among the regions with inadequate sanitation facilities, said de Albuquerque, are Falmouth, Mass., which has aging infrastructure and increasing contamination of bays and estuaries with nitrates. Other regions with aging or no sewage systems include Lowndes County in Alabama, and the Appalachian regions of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
The special rapporteur devoted substantial time during her visit to the San Joaquin Valley in California, which she said is experiencing “enormous challenges, particularly due to nitrate contamination, in provided safe, accessible drinking water to about 90 percent of its 3.8 million residents.
Much of her specific findings addressed problems in California, particularly the San Joaquin Valley, where she cites "enormous challenges" particularly with nitrate contamination of drinking water. While occurring naturally, nitrate levels are elevated by crop fertilizers and animal manure and are known to harm respiratory and reproductive systems as well as the kidney, spleen and thyroid.
UUSC President William F. Schulz said the UN report shines new light on how major elements of American society are excluded from access to safe, adequate, and affordable water.
"There is nothing more fundamental to our nation’s values than equal access to drinking water for everyone," said Schulz, who testified at a congressional hearing before the Lantos Human Rights Commission at the end of the independent expert’s visit. "This report exposes a serious lack of compliance with our constitution, and the human rights for which our country has sacrificed much to uphold.
"It is unacceptable that our country has children, seniors, and seriously ill people today consuming water that is poisoned with animal and human feces, unregulated or 'permissible' toxins or worse — that they do not have access at all. It is of urgent concern that both the federal, state and local governments move without delay to address these findings."
De Albuquerque pointed out that although the United Nations has declared a human right to water, there is no federally recognized right in the United Sates to safe drinking water and sanitation. However, some states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have a right to clean water in their constitutions. Additionally, the UN report comes at a time when a package of human-right-to-water bills are being debated in the California State Legislature.
The independent expert said it is essential for all levels of government in the United States to give priority to water for personal and domestic use. She said the absence of clear legal standards threatens to undermine the realization of the human right to water and sanitation for all.
"Placing the human rights to water and sanitation at the center of policy formulation for both domestic and international aid policies is crucial to ensure that all people in the United States, as well as those benefiting from its development assistance, have access to affordable, accessible, acceptable and safe water and sanitation in sufficient amounts to protect human health and human dignity," said de Albuquerque.
Among the special rapporteur’s other major recommendations are:
- The United States needs to develop a national water policy and plan of action guided by the normative content of the rights to water and sanitation.
- More concerted efforts are required to ensure targeting of policies and programs to reach the hidden and poorest segments of the population. Problems of discrimination in the United States water and sanitation services may intensify in the coming years with climate change and competing demands for ever scarce water resources.
- Evaluate the extent to which people living in poverty face challenges in paying for water and sanitation services, and adopt, at the federal level, a national minimum standard on affordability of water and sanitation, as well as due process guarantees in relation to disconnections.
- Ensure that all municipalities provide access to safe drinking water and sanitation to homeless people, including through ensuring the opening and regular maintenance and upkeep of public restrooms, as well as availability of public water fountains, including during the night.
- Adopt a comprehensive federal law on water and sanitation guaranteeing the rights to safe water and sanitation without discrimination and clearly delineating the responsibilities of public officials at the federal, state and local levels.
- Ensure proper regulation and monitoring of the water quality of private drinking water systems.
- Engage in dialogue with homeless communities to assist these individuals to find more secure housing solutions, including stable access to adequate water and sanitation.
- Enact the necessary legal action to change the status of unrecognized and terminated tribes to enable them to realize their rights to water and sanitation, as well as express religious and cultural rights.
- Ensure adequate consultation and prior and informed consent of indigenous communities regarding activities affecting their access to water.
The full UN report is available online at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/18session/A-HRC-18-33-Add4_en.pdf.