We Have a Right To Water. The U.S. Has Not Delivered.

The United States has failed to recognize the human rights to water and sanitation in federal law. Reps. Bush, Tlaib and Bowman are working to change that.

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Clean Water

by Mia DiFelice and Mary Grant

Now more than ever, access to clean water is top of mind. Climate chaos continues to harm communities nationwide, disproportionately Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. It’s bringing droughts, floods, sewage spills, wildfires and destruction. For many, supplies are diminishing and water quality is deteriorating.

The devastating water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi has left the city’s 150,000 residents without water for a week and without safe water for months. As will happen in many other cities, the climate crisis collided with decades of intentional disinvestment and structural racism. 

But at the same time, Big Ag and Big Oil continue guzzling water and wreaking havoc on the climate. Corporations have used tons of toxic chemicals like PFAS that end up in our waterways. Such abuse to our water and water systems has led to deadly pollution and our nation’s current lead crisis. It has ruined water resources that everyone should be able to use and enjoy. 

Our access to clean, affordable water faces threats on so many fronts. And we have a framework to begin solving these problems, but our government has yet to use it.

The U.S. Shows The Consequences of Ignoring The Right to Water

Twelve years ago, the United Nations officially recognized the human right to water. The resolution, signed by 122 countries, changed the conversation for policymakers and activists around the world. Since then, 39 countries have enshrined the right to water in legislation or their constitutions. 

The United States has failed to follow suit. In fact, the U.S. abstained from the UN vote that made water a human right. It even argued that water was not a human right, despite being necessary for survival, health and human flourishing.

This bears out in our policies and our communities, and it must be fixed. 

Thanks to corporate greed, the prices of necessities are skyrocketing at record rates. The privatization of utilities will make matters even worse. The corporations capturing public goods and services have long put profits before public interest. As a result, folks with privately held water pay an average 59% higher bills than those with public providers. 

We are facing an affordability crisis that puts people’s right to water at risk. Millions in the U.S. struggle to pay their utility bills. For the low-income participants in one federal program, a third skip filling prescriptions or grocery store trips to pay for utilities. If families can’t pay, utilities can force people from their homes or cut off these essential services. 

The U.S.’s failure to recognize and fulfill our human rights to water and sanitation is connected to so many other problems we face. It’s connected to the climate emergency and the COVID-19 pandemic, our failing infrastructure and our country’s past and present of racial and economic injustice. 

The U.S. Must Recognize Water As a Human Right Now

On Thursday, Reps. Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib and Jamaal Bowman introduced a resolution to recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. The resolution would also recognize our rights to other utilities essential to health, safety and human dignity. These rights include the right to electricity, heating, cooling, broadband communications and public transportation.

To protect people and planet, the resolution calls on the House of Representatives to commit to ensuring these rights. It lays the groundwork for utility services that are accessible, safe, sustainable, affordable and reliable for all. 

If passed, the resolution would commit the House to, among other things:

  • Guarantee service for all by ending violent collection practices, including shutoffs;
  • Support public control of utilities by banning water privatization and commodification, expanding public electricity and opening up broadband service to public providers; 
  • Provide grants to environmental justice communities and create well-paying union jobs;
  • Address our climate crisis with justly sourced renewable energy;
  • And ensure utility services are safe and accessible for all, including unhoused folks.

The Right to Water Will Have Tangible Benefits For Communities

When people have the right to water, they have legal support to claim that right and the government must respond. A legal right reaffirms that water is not a commodity on which big corporations can profit from. Rather, water is a natural resource that we are all entitled to access safely and affordably.

California was the first U.S. state to recognize the human right to water. Since passage in 2012, the law has begun working its way through state agencies, prompting studies and regulations.    

Last year, New York voted overwhelmingly to incorporate the right to water in the state constitution. We await to see how this affects state policy, but the state has taken other actions to affirm the right to water and protect water as a public resource. 

Two days after the vote, Governor Hochul established two public water authorities in Nassau County. The authorities replaced private company American Water, restoring water provision to the public trust.  

More than 200 organizations support the rights to water in the United States. Food & Water Watch will continue to fight, alongside our allies, for the right to clean, affordable and accessible water for all.

Our government must recognize our right to water and other necessities. Tell Congress to support the resolution recognizing our right to utilities.