In Their Own Words: Water If You’re Wealthy Enough to Afford It

An interview with UUSC Researcher Amber Moulton

In the following interview, Amber Moulton, researcher in UUSC’s Programs, Advocacy, and Action Department, previews UUSC’s upcoming research survey on water affordability.

Why did UUSC choose to focus on water affordability in the upcoming research survey?

Affordability is one of the five main pillars of the human right to water, and it’s one of the biggest challenges to the human right to water in the United States. As Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, noted in her 2011 visit to the United States, the United States has done a substantially better job of providing people with clean, safe water than it has providing people with equitable access to affordable water.

The anecdotal evidence and the few studies that have been done on water affordability are really shocking. Roger Colton, one of our partners, has done a California-wide study that showed that if you were to take the standard for affordability, which is essentially 4% of the median household income in an area, and then look at the lowest part of the income spectrum, you find that there are people in some counties who would be paying up to 19% of their household income for their water bill. If you look at an average water bill for a family of four in U.S. major cities, you can do a very simple calculation using the federal poverty level and find that 15% of the population is very likely struggling to pay their water bill — and this is something that is absolutely essential to human life.

What is currently considered affordable is actually extremely inequitable for people in the two lower quintiles of the income spectrum. This is essentially what this water report is about: the problem of saying that you can be healthy, you can have the dignity associated with hygiene only if you’re wealthy enough to afford it. That’s unacceptable. We need to be recognizing water as a human right.

Has the research uncovered any effects of water unaffordability that might surprise people?

One of the things that can happen when people can’t pay their water bill is that their water will be shut off. When people have their water shut off, it makes their homes legally uninhabitable. That can factor into the state’s decisions to remove children and put them into foster care. Sadly and ironically, the system doesn’t currently subsidize or help families who need financial help to pay their bills, but it subsidizes the bills of a foster family. So, it can tear children apart from their parents.

It also has major health consequences. One of the things we saw in the mass water shutoffs in Detroit was that people who had catastrophic and chronic illness, including illnesses where they needed water for their treatment, were cut off from water just like everyone else, without any data being collected about who needed water and who was particularly vulnerable.

In addition, there are any number of socially significant ways that health and hygiene are affected. So if you don’t have water — and we’ve seen specific cases of this in Detroit — you might stop cooking certain types of food that are significant in your culture, like pasta or rice, that use more water. You have people who can’t take showers and baths regularly, and of course there is social stigma that goes with that in workplaces and schools. Plus, women who are experiencing their period certainly also have a particular need for water.

And believe it or not, there’s also the risk of criminalization in many places. In Detroit, we found that people who turned their water back on can actually be charged with a crime. So those are some of the things we’re talking about when it comes to water unaffordability: You can lose your ability to live in your home, you can lose your children, you can lose your freedom.

You’ve mentioned Detroit. Where else is this happening?

We’ve seen mass water shutoffs recently in Baltimore, but this is actually standard operating procedure in many places — shutting off water is not banned. There are particularly egregious examples — communities where people in the lowest quintile of the income spread might be paying 20% of their income for water — but it really is happening throughout the United States. People who are hooked up to small water systems, with less than 100,000 people, as well as people in the largest metropolitan systems can be facing very unaffordable bills.

Certainly anyone who lives below the poverty threshold — or even twice that threshold — very likely is experiencing a struggle when it comes to paying their water bills. And often this is exacerbated by historical trends and trends in austerity measures — like the emergency management policy in Michigan — that are particularly disenfranchising low-income communities of color.

What are some of the recommendations that have come out of your analysis?

There is exciting new national water affordability legislation that will be proposed by NACLAWater [National Coalition for Legislation on Water Affordability], which UUSC is part of. The proposed legislation will push the need to create real means of water affordability in the United States. In addition, there’s the immediate need for mass water shutoffs to be discontinued and prohibited in the future. We also want to push for water policies that bill families based on actual household income, which could include creating rate structures that provide discounts for low-income people or instituting a cap of 2.5% of monthly household income for all services. We also want decriminalization, protections for vulnerable populations, and comprehensive data collection.

Stay tuned for UUSC’s water affordability report! In the meantime, take action by calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to include affordable water in the White House Climate Action Plan.

Syrian Refugee Crisis: Situation, Strategy, Partners, and Advocacy

As the conflict in Syria continues to rage unabated, the needs of refugees who have been displaced by the conflict remain acute. Yet despite the internationally-protected human right of these refugees to flee and seek asylum, host countries refuse to recognize them as full members of their societies, and many European nations have adopted closed border policies that intensifies the crisis. The need to respond compassionately to this situation is as urgent as ever.

Thanks to the generosity of so many people, we have so far raised more than $610,000 for the UUSC-UUA Refugee Crisis Fund. With these resources, UUSC is working with grassroots partners in Jordan, the Balkans and the United States, providing emergency aid, ensuring access to legal help and resettlement support, and advocating for necessary changes in policy and public perception.

The situation

Five years into Syria’s devastating civil war, half the country’s population remains displaced from their homes, with over 4.8 million Syrians forced to seek refuge abroad. While a partial ceasefire was brokered in February between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and some rebel groups, fighting continues among several other major parties to the conflict, including the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As a result, hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire continue to flee atrocities committed by state and non-state actors and the constant threat of violence from extremist groups.

In some respects, the situation for refugees is worse than ever before. Whereas earlier waves of Syrian refugees were generally able to cross the border and seek asylum abroad, newly displaced Syrians are encountering closed borders and tight restrictions on their movement on all sides. While Syria’s closest neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, had maintained a relatively open border in the early years of the conflict, all three have now effectively closed their borders to asylum seekers – due in large part to the failure of wealthier governments to step in to fill the gaps by adequately funding the humanitarian response and expanding their resettlement programs. Turkish border guards in some cases have actually gunned down Syrian asylum seekers who tried to cross the border.[1] The result is that more than 150,000 civilians fleeing ISIS are now trapped in the desert outside the Turkish border,[2] where they face the constant threat of airstrikes or of falling into the hands of armed rebel groups.

With no clear end to the violence in sight, the nearly five million Syrian refugees living abroad have effectively become permanent residents of the societies they inhabit. Host governments in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, however, continue to maintain the pretense that these refugees are merely temporary “guests” who should not be integrated into society or granted the full rights of citizens. Because of this, Syrian refugees are for the most part forced to live in the shadows. Denied formal permission to work and other basic rights, they must subsist on vanishing cash allowances from international organizations or eke out a living in the informal sector. The extreme financial vulnerability of refugee families has led to skyrocketing rates of child labor and other forms of exploitation, as well as to the loss of an entire generation of Syrian children from institutions of formal education.

The shameful conduct of host countries toward refugees, however, is only a foreseeable consequence of the policy choices of wealthier countries. At the start of this year, the European Union made an agreement with Turkey that has exacerbated the crisis. In exchange for returning refugees from Europe to Turkey and the nominal loosening of some of Turkey’s restrictions against refugees, European governments have effectively turned their back on the thousands of refugees trapped at Turkey’s borders or suffering exclusion in Turkish society.

After this bargain went into effect, Europe’s previously open reception centers in Greece and the Balkans were converted into closed detention camps, where refugees are effectively imprisoned while they await possible deportation to Turkey, and where violence against migrants is well-documented.

The United States, meanwhile, has done next to nothing to ameliorate the situation. The U.S. has resettled less than 2,000 Syrian refugees, despite a commitment to resettle 10,000 this fiscal year. What’s more, the U.S. is in the throes of a terrifying anti-immigrant and Islamophobic backlash that jeopardizes the safety of Muslims living in the U.S. and threatens to amend the current refugee program to include overt racial and religious discrimination.

The strategy

UUSC addresses human rights violations against refugees and asylum seekers that are fueled by xenophobic attitudes, short-sighted immigration controls, and nationalistic policies. In whatever context we work, UUSC commits ourselves to the principles that migration is not a crime and seeking asylum is a fundamental human right. UUSC continues to affirm this truth as it pursues a multifaceted strategy in addressing the crisis at home and abroad:

  • Emergency aid and resettlement support in Greece, Croatia, and Serbia: offering medical aid, mental health support, resettlement support, and more aid? to long-term refugees.
  • Legal access in Hungary, Jordan, and the United States: providing legal assistance and awareness training, reunifying family members and assisting refugees in navigating the resettlement processes, including how to challenge discriminatory treatment.
  • Advocacy in Europe and the United States: raising public awareness and sensitivity around refugee issues, challenging xenophobic sentiments and legislation, and upholding the inherent dignity of immigrant communities.

The partners

Greece: ensuring decent reception conditions
UUSC has been partnering with the Greek non-governmental organization PRAKSIS to provide immediate transportation assistance and basic needs kits to newly arrived refugees and their children on the Greek island of Lesvos.

Serbia: providing comprehensive mobile assistance along the transit route
The Asylum Protection Center (APC), our partner in Serbia, enlists a team of aid professionals to provide a comprehensive array of services, including legal support, humanitarian aid, psychosocial counseling, and language interpretation, to long-term and transiting refugees.

Croatia: offering support for long-term resettlement
UUSC is partnering with the Center for Peace Studies (CPS), which spearheads the Welcome Initiative, a collaborative effort of 50 organizations to address refugee resettlement, to provide immediate humanitarian support, and to advocate for more welcoming policies at the national and international levels.

Hungary: facilitating family reunification
With our support, our partners at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) are working to provide full financial and legal support for refugee families who have been torn apart by war and are navigating the family reunification process.

Slovenia: providing humanitarian protection at the Croatia-Serbia border

Magna Children at Risk, a UUSC partner, operates medical humanitarian projects — including medical, surgery, psychological, and nutritional programs for children and their families —in two refugee camps at the Croatia-Serbia border.

Jordan: challenging refugee exploitation through legal trainings and assistance
The Arab Renaissance for Democracy (ARDD) — Legal Aid is raising legal awareness and empowerment through trainings and research to help Syrian refugees in Jordan navigate the risks they face due to discrimination, lack of formal recognition, and heightened vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

United States: promoting positive dialogue, refugee integration, and a more welcoming public policy
In Southern California, the Arab American Civic Council is launching, with UUSC support, a “Refugees Welcome” initiative that supports the resettlement and integration of Syrian refugees. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) is working to improve public policy related to refugees in Massachusetts. In Indiana, UUSC is partnering with Refugee Exodus to provide critical care to Syrian refugees while also practically confronting anti-refugee political agendas that caused Refugee Exodus a loss of vital funding. In Toledo, Ohio, UUSC is partnering with US Together to help newly arrived refugee families resettle with dignity in the United States and build their new lives in this country.

The advocacy

Through national policy advocacy, an integrated communications plan, and mobilizing UU congregations and activists, UUSC has been working to increase federal humanitarian assistance for refugees, to increase the U.S. refugee quota, and to forestall any attempt from politicians to introduce religious or ethnic discrimination into the refugee program, and to promote a welcoming environment for all refugees and asylum seekers. 

Key highlights:

  • Releasing “Building Bridges: Refugee Support and Advocacy Toolkit” – a resource for congregations, student groups, and individuals to take action on refugee rights.
  • Launching the Refugee Rapid Response Network to mobilize quickly and effectively around national and state-level legislation on refugees and asylum-seekers.
  • Partnering with members and congregations to organize events such as the Monte Vista UU Congregation’s Refugee Welcoming Lunch, data parties with the Arab American Civic Council to develop a welcome guide for new Americans, and Know Your Rights trainings for Central American asylum-seekers with local congregations and RAICES.
  • Presenting in large-scale UU settings such as the Annual General Assembly and the Walking the Walk Justice Summit of the UU Justice Ministry of California and the UU Justice Arizona Network.
  • Mobilizing, through our work with the Ministerial Leadership Network and the Unitarian Universalists Ministerial Association, more than 600 Unitarian Universalist clergy to sign onto an open letter from faith leaders to Donald Trump calling upon him to retract his call for banning all Muslims from entering the United States.
  • Connecting Unitarian Universalists to interfaith initiatives and events to welcome refugees as part of the Refugees Welcome Coalition.

[1] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/10/turkey-border-guards-kill-and-injure-asylum-seekers

[2] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/27/dispatches-isis-advance-traps-165000-syrians-closed-turkish-border

Photo from the Field: Supporting Economic Justice

Children of Food Chain Workers Alliance members supporting economic justice at an OUR Walmart wage protest on Black Friday 2015 in Pico Rivera, Calif. (in Los Angeles County). The Food Chain Workers Alliance is a partner that UUSC is working with to bolster rights for food chain workers throughout the United States, most recently in a project to advance the Good Food Purchasing Policy

The Power and Potential of Good Food

Transforming the food industry through purchasing policy

What does “good food” mean to you — great taste, innovative cooking techniques, a meal shared with friends and family? Whether it uses local ingredients, organic vegetables, free-range chicken? What about the environmental impact of your meal or the working conditions of the people who got the food to your table? In our interdependent world, more and more people are asking those latter questions — and UUSC wants the answers to be a matter of policy, not just individual preference. UUSC is currently working with the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) and other allies to promote the groundbreaking Good Food Purchasing Policy, which has the potential and power to transform the U.S. food industry.

Big system, big issues

The food chain is a mess. Industrial agriculture relies on pesticides that poison the soil and water sources. Farmworkers face backbreaking labor, exposure to harmful chemicals, wage theft, and sexual harassment. Factory farms treat animals inhumanely and pump them full of antibiotics. Poultry processors endure poor compensation, unsafe working conditions, and retaliation. Food is transported thousands of miles away from where it was produced. Restaurant workers deal with poverty wages, race and gender discrimination, and a lack of benefits like paid sick leave and health insurance. (Read more about the challenges food-chain workers face in The Hands That Feed Us, an FCWA report.)

UUSC has been partnering with the FCWA since 2011 to address human rights violations throughout the food chain. The FCWA is a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members “plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food.” And this is how the FCWA describes the current state of affairs: “Our current food system is devastating workers, communities, producers, and the environment.”

Not only is the food chain a mess, but it’s also a big one. According to the FCWA, the U.S. food system — which includes food production, processing, distribution, retail, and service — employs approximately 20 million workers and accounts for more than 14% of U.S. gross domestic product. Injustices of this magnitude need comprehensive solutions and replicable models. That’s where the Good Food Purchasing Policy (GFPP) comes in. 

Guidelines for good food

First developed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council in 2012, the GFPP is a pioneering policy that guides the purchase of food in the interest of justice — for workers, for the environment, and for local communities. According to FCWA, GFPP provides metric-based guidelines that enable institutions to “work with food service providers, distributors, processors and growers to create a transparent ‘farm-to-fork’ food supply.” The policy standards are based on five factors:

  • Local economies
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Fair labor
  • Animal welfare
  • Nutrition

The GFPP outlines baseline purchasing criteria relating to these factors and has a tiered points-based system that awards one to five stars for participating institutions and companies. Philip Hamilton, associate for UUSC’s Economic Justice Program, explains, “There are other types of procurement policies out there, but what makes GFPP really unique is how comprehensive it is. It doesn’t reflect only one aspect of how the food system works — it really encompasses all of it.”

Why does a policy like this matter? It has incredible capacity to shift the economics of the food system. In Los Angeles, the GFPP governs an estimated 750,000 meals a day in Los Angeles via the city and school district. The more institutions that sign on, the larger the market for food that is fairly produced. And the benefits are extensive: FCWA highlights just a few: “increased food safety through reduced chemical and antibiotic use, decreased truck emissions associated with food transportation that cause asthma and other respiratory conditions, and improved wages and safe working conditions for employees in production, processing, and food service, many of whom are among the least able to afford healthy food themselves.”

Growing the GFPP

As amazing as the GFPP is, its potential will only be realized as more institutions adopt the policy. UUSC is currently working with FCWA to make sure that happens. First, UUSC is supporting a series of FCWA trainings that will teach people the principles of GFPP and equip them with the skills to advocate for the policy in their local areas.

The goal of these trainings, which use a train-the-trainer model, is to spawn three to five local GFPP campaigns in areas throughout the United States, targeting locations with the political climate and local capacity to make success highly likely. The pilot training took place in Chicago in September 2015. Conducted by the FCWA in collaboration with the UU College of Social Justice, the training engaged local interfaith and Unitarian Universalist activists along with workers from Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Ohio. Future trainings are being planned for the East and West Coasts. UUSC also launched a Food Justice Activist Network to support faith-based participants in helping move the GFPP forward.

These trainings — like all of FCWA’s work — are firmly grounded in the needs of workers throughout the food chain. “What inspires me particularly about working with the Food Chain Workers Alliance,” says Hamilton, “is how they are able to attract an extremely large base — 23 coalition organizations with a collective membership of 300,000 — while remaining in really close contact with the needs of the workers.”

Beyond the trainings, UUSC and the FCWA are teaming up with a larger coalition to move GFPP further — into the realm of corporate food purchasing. This coalition is currently pressuring the Darden restaurant company, which has more than 1,500 restaurants with 150,000 employees and serves 320 million meals a year, to ensure at least 20% of its food procurement abides by GFPP principles. The coalition includes 51 groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and Friends of the Earth, who have so far (as of December 2015) collectively rallied approximately 41,000 people to sign a petition to Darden.

Opportunity for impact

Hamilton is energized by all of these efforts and hopes that energy proves contagious. “The GFPP really gives people such an opportunity for impact,” he says. “To date, it’s really been focused on municipalities and giving people a voice there, and with the campaign pressuring Darden, it’s really tapping into consumer power to ensure that they have a voice in how things are procured.”

Want to get involved? Join the Food Justice Activist Network by e-mailing Pamela Sparr at psparr @ uusc.org. 

Drop, Ripple, Wave

Building Resilience to Climate Change in California

“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” —Dalai Lama

For more than 800,000 people in California, getting clean water — for drinking, for cooking, for bathing — is not easy. There’s the four-year drought. There’s the prioritization of industrial agriculture’s water needs. Then there’s the contaminated groundwater that was a problem for thousands of people well before the drought took hold.

The bad news (as if there weren’t enough already): climate change is only making things worse. The good news: UUSC is working with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (ECJW) to protect the human right to water and build resiliency to the effects of climate change.

Climate change — so what?

Despite the unwillingness of some people to admit it, climate change is real. And as the New York Times Editorial Board wrote in “Preparing for Tomorrow’s Storms,” a recent editorial about the challenges facing California, “In the coming years, climate change is likely to render every part of the country more vulnerable to environmental disasters.” What that means? More drought. More intense and catastrophic storms. More unpredictable growing seasons.

Patricia Jones, UUSC’s senior program leader for the human right to water, says, “I think one of the biggest challenges we’re facing is that climate change impacts are coming much more severely and much quicker than we thought, and we’re not ready.”

It boils down to water

One of the most significant effects of climate change is on water. UN-Water reports that climate change will impact people mostly through water. “Between 1991 and 2000 over 665,000 people died in 2,557 natural disasters, of which 90% were water related events. Adaptation to climate change is mainly about better water management,” states UN-Water’s 2013 fact sheet on climate change.

What this looks like for people in California and surrounding areas: “Decreased access to fresh water is a primary risk for communities hit by climate change in the southwestern United States and worldwide,” wrote Jones in a March UU World article.

Many communities in California are no stranger to decreased access to fresh water. Just last year, Omar Carrillo, policy analyst for the Community Water Center, a UUSC partner, said, “The silver lining to the three-year drought in California? We don’t have to worry about drinking contaminated groundwater, because we don’t have any.” He delivered those words during the national consultation on human rights and climate change that was held in California last October. An example of his point: in East Porterville, 400 wells went dry, leaving 1,000 people without water. And that’s just one town.

UUSC has been working with partners and communities in California who have faced contaminated water — and the financial costs and health risks that come with it — for years. The daily struggle for clean water that communities like Seville and others in Tulare County alone endure was a major motivating factor behind the advocacy to successfully pass the 2012 Human Right to Water Act of California.

Adding climate change to the equation only makes the situation worse. As the New York Times editorial lays out, 25 million people rely on the rain and melting snow of the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed for safe drinking water. While the drought is already diminishing that, the more intense storms brought on by climate change endanger that freshwater source via potential breach of the levees that protect it.   

What’s being done about that? Not enough and not fast enough. One of the major problems: “Water for all, including low-income people, was largely ignored in the climate change policy of the last 10 years — and it’s still being ignored while we work on energy solutions,” says Jones.

Who pays the price

The lack of attention to water in climate change policy is not the only major problem, though. Another vital issue is the disproportionate impact experienced by people already bearing many burdens. The 2014 U.N. Resolution on Human Rights and Climate Change states:

While these implications [of climate change on human rights] affect individuals and communities around the world, the adverse effects of climate change will be felt most acutely by those segments of the population that are already in vulnerable situations owing to factors such as geography, poverty, gender, age, indigenous or minority status and disability.

In California, this means that it is especially low-income communities of color who are affected — who can’t trust the water that comes out of their taps (if it does). Who are forced to buy bottled water that they can’t afford for their daily needs. Who are forced to decide between paying the rent and buying water.

“Discrimination and lack of access to safe affordable water will only get worse with climate change — unless we don’t let that happen. It is happening in the drought negotiations in California, and it is only the beginning,” says Jones.

Building community power and resilience

It bears repeating: “unless we don’t let that happen.” That is exactly why UUSC is partnering with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (ECJW) to take on these challenges in California. The partnership — and the larger coalition that each organization is part of — has already seen success and is working toward more progress in protecting the human right to water in the face of climate change.

The previous 2012 legislative victory is making a difference now, during the drought negotiations. Jones explains, “Because of the Human Right to Water Act, our community partners are no longer outside the door, outside the building, not even knowing the meetings are happening. They are in the room and at the table negotiating for their interests.” That means the voices of the people most affected by contaminated water — and no water at all — are being heard as decisions get made by government agencies active in setting water policy and allocating funding in the midst of the drought.

UUSC is supporting EJCW in a wide range of activities, including community organizing, advocating for fair funding, and exploring waterless sanitation systems. As Jones wrote in UU World, “EJCW is spearheading major initiatives with foundations, academic think tanks at Stanford University and the University of California, and social justice organizers to forge a path for climate resiliency in the drought negotiations and beyond. This groundbreaking effort is different from most climate change work because it brings the climate resiliency movement and water resources management together, with a focus on water justice.”

Members and supporters of UUSC are taking action, too, by raising awareness and funds for this work through the Blue Buckets campaign, part of UUSC’s Climate Justice Sunday program. This kind of support can make the following — and more — possible: 

  • Tankers full of water can provide families with water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking.
  • Busloads of people from communities that lack safe water can go to Sacramento to speak to elected officials during drought negotiations.
  • EJCW can continue to explore innovative solutions to the water crisis.
  • Research on water affordability and discrimination can be undertaken.

Drop, ripple, wave

Climate change is not going away. But neither is the climate justice movement. Case in point: UUSC has joined with several other UU organizations and thousands of people of faith and conscience to take collective long-term action for climate justice through the Commit2Respond initiative.

Jones wrote in UU World: “I believe there is hope. We can scale up innovative models coming from frontline communities around the world—if we make sure climate negotiations include adaptation funding that doesn’t stop at the borders of the developed countries.”

Actions can add up. Positive change can be achieved. UUSC will continue to work with partners and supporters who are dedicated to defending the rights of people most affected by climate change and to protecting the human right to water.

Turning Law into Reality

California's Human Right to Water Act

This article was originally published in the Winter/Spring 2015 issue of Rights Now.

When California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Human Right to Water Act in September 2012, the victory was historic. But what good is a law without effective implementation? Over the past two years, UUSC has been partnering with local grassroots organizations in California that are leading the way to turn words into action — and systemic change is under way.

The work of a broad coalition, including UUSC, to help make the Human Right to Water Act (A.B. 685) an on-the-ground reality is building on a strong foundation developed during years-long efforts to pass the law. UUSC continues to work closely with the lead organizations in this work: the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW), the UU Justice Ministry of California (UUJMCA), and other members of the Safe Water Alliance, of which UUSC is a founding member.

Before showcasing ways that the law is creating change, let’s look at what it actually says: “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.” The law continues: “All relevant state agencies, including the department, the state board, and the State Department of Public Health, shall consider this state policy when revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria when those policies, regulations, and criteria are pertinent to the uses of water described in this section.” 

A few ways this law is already changing policy and practice:

  • The 2014 funding bill (A.B. 1471) for a statewide water plan includes $520 million designated to “improve water quality or help provide clean, safe, and reliable drinking water to all Californians.”
  • The Department of Water Resources has formed an environmental justice caucus and proposed a study on California residents whose water access is insufficient.
  • The State Water Board has formed an internal working group to implement the law.
  • SEIU, the union of engineers and other workers at the State Water Board, is developing a curriculum about the law and training more than 1,000 workers.

UUSC and partners have also helped produce several tools to raise awareness and put the law into action. First is the film Thirsty for Justice: The Struggle for the Human Right to Water, which was chosen as an official selection for 2015 Wild & Scenic Film Festival. (Watch the trailer above or at ejcw.org/thirsty.) EJCW and UUJMCA used the film to train 200 workers at the Department of Water Resources on the importance of the law to various California communities that have been denied water access.

UUSC also provided technical input into a U.N. handbook on implementing the human right to water, available at righttowater.info/handbook. The California Research Bureau is researching this handbook as well as other resources for best practices and reporting to the California governor, agencies, and state legislature on key next steps.

One highlight of the U.N. handbook is guidance on water shutoffs, which — as seen in Detroit, Mich. — strip thousands of people across the United States of their human right to water. Water affordability and discrimination are central to UUSC’s water work moving forward, and UUSC is partnering with a number of institutions to undertake research on the subject in several states.