Bringing U.S. Failures on Our Equal Right to Water to the World Stage

Published Oct 20, 2023


Clean Water

A new report from Northeastern University’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy details how U.S. water policy and infrastructure discriminate against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.

A new report from Northeastern University’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy details how U.S. water policy and infrastructure discriminate against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is one of the most important international human rights laws. In this treaty, countries — including the U.S. — agreed to protect a variety of civil and political rights, including the right to life. They also agreed to protect these rights equally, without discrimination. 

But the U.S. is failing on those promises, which include equally ensuring people’s right to water. 

We know that water and sanitation are essential to life and health. We all have a right to safe, affordable water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and cleaning. However, in the U.S., whether you have safe, affordable water tightly maps onto your community’s race, income, and immigration status.

This issue entered the national spotlight in summer 2022; a water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi cut off clean water for more than 100,000 residents. The crisis shone a light on how the city has long failed to deliver safe, affordable water for its majority-Black residents.

In a new report with Northeastern University’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) and allies, we detail how the U.S. is failing to ensure the right to water equally. 

Read PHRGE’s full report on drinking water access and affordability in the United States.

This year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee is reviewing the United States’ compliance with this international law, as it does every five years. The PHRGE team went to Geneva to present its report on the U.S.’s water failures.

Before PHRGE left for Geneva, Mary Grant, director of our Public Water for All program, sat down with Jennifer Loveland-Rose on the PHRGE team, who was lead author on the report.

In this interview, they discuss how the U.S. has failed to ensure the right to water equally and how policies can change that. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Taking Water and Civil Rights to the World Stage

First, can you explain the purpose of this report and why you’re meeting with the UN Human Rights Committee?

Generally, PHRGE takes an international law approach because we see a lot of the systems and structures that are supposed to hold actors accountable within the United States as not going far enough to achieve justice.

Something that I’ve learned from Professor Martha Davis, as her research assistant at PHRGE, is the importance of being creative in your legal strategy.

The UN’s review is really valuable because it brings together so many advocates from all across the country on many different issues. And so you get to work in coalition on these issues and advocate directly with federal agencies and decision-makers, when usually there’s a lot of separation between advocates and bureaucrats. 

It’s an opportunity to talk directly about your issues, develop those personal connections, and then hopefully get UN Human Rights Committee members to give a formal conclusion and recommendation that echoes your recommendations. These can all be really, really important tools for continuing the advocacy back home.

This is the first time that water has been included in the list of issues the Human Rights Committee considers, thanks to the advocacy of Food & Water Watch [a copy of the petition]. And so we really wanted to take that and run with it and look at access to water through a lens of discrimination, through civil rights, and bring attention to this issue on the world stage.

Jennifer Loveland-Rose stands and speaks in front of a microphone amongst seated people in suits.
Jennifer Loveland-Rose speaks directly to federal government representatives at the U.S. Mission to Geneva Civil Society Consultation. (Source: State Department)

How the U.S. Fails to Ensure the Right to Water Equally

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights calls for countries to protect the right to life without discrimination. How have U.S. water policies failed to protect this right?

The U.S. at present doesn’t recognize water as being included in the right to life under this treaty, despite there being an official UN general comment that states this explicitly: water and conditions of living are included. So that’s the United States’ first failure.

But it fails every day in so many ways to secure this right. It allows people to be charged unaffordable prices for their water. Drinking water is severely contaminated both from agricultural sources and industrial pollution and as a result of aging infrastructure. 

And there are issues of water connectivity. So many low-income, Black, or Indigenous populations have never been connected to a municipal water source. Alternatives, like well water, are not supported and given the funding that they need, either.

Beyond that, we have inconsistent supplies of water. So, you might be connected to a municipal water utility, but not have a dependable source of water every day, or throughout the day. 

And that’s just the general pattern of the U.S. not securing the right to life through access to water. But the U.S. is also doing this discriminatorily. 

All of these issues are disproportionately experienced by Black, Brown, and Indigenous populations, low-income populations, populations that don’t speak English as a first language, or have different immigration statuses. And those are all seen as populations who are higher at risk.

This isn’t new but rather a continuation of the legacy of racist policy decisions that formed this country and our water systems. The lack of infrastructure in Black, Brown and Indigenous communities isn’t an accident. It’s a result of intentional funding decisions that have diverted federal, state, and municipal resources away from those who need it most in favor of whiter, more affluent communities. 

The report focuses specifically on the ongoing water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi as an example of how the U.S. is failing to protect this right. What did you learn from community members there about the crisis?

I have had the honor of being in contact with Makani Themba, who is a community member and representative from Jackson, Mississippi. She shared with me the testimonies given by a lot of different advocates from the Jackson community, as the Department of Justice investigated the mismanagement of the water utility. 

We really wanted to make sure as many of those stories were incorporated into the report as possible. Being able to leverage this function of international law is really important, but not if we’re excluding the voices of people who are directly impacted. 

We went through the testimony, and some things that really stood out to me were the failures of the interim utility [JXN Water], which the federal government set up in its intervention in Jackson. It seemed that residents found it worse at communicating water contamination or water stoppages in the supply. 

That was one way in which transparency, which I’ll talk about in a second, really came into play. If the utility is not taking accountability and is not doing direct outreach when it is failing community members, then that really causes a lot of distrust. It’s disrespectful to those community members who deserve clean, continuous drinking water access. 

Community members are concerned about diversion of funding from Black and Brown and low-income communities to predominantly white or affluent communities, and they are urging the federal agencies to create an accountability mechanism for state decision makers. 

A lot of people talked about just their daily struggles with getting water, how it affects their skin with the hardness of the water, or just when you want to take a shower before you have to work, and suddenly you’re halfway through shampooing your hair and you lose all water, and it just immediately ruins your day. 

It’s just that day-in, day-out lack of trust in your water situation; that’s really exhausting for people. And there were 50- or 60-year-old community advocates talking about experiencing the same thing when they were in high school. That shows how long-term this has been, as well.

How Privatization and Climate Change Further Threaten Our Right to Water

How does privatization threaten equal protection of the right to water?

There are quite a few cities that have switched to private water utilities over the years. And lots of data suggest that water rates from private utilities are much higher than their public counterparts. 

When water becomes more expensive, it becomes less affordable, and it again reduces access for low-income communities.

Many places that privatize their water have disproportionately higher Black populations, as well. And so we see the impact of privatizing water supply as directly decreasing access to affordable drinking water in Black communities.

In general, when you privatize something, someone wants to make a profit off of that, and something that is a human right should not be sold for profit. We should be treating water as a public good that our municipal governments and federal government have oversight on. 

For example, Jackson community members really do not want a private system in Jackson. They want people who are from the community to work there. 

During Jackson’s transition to a private operator, there was a firing, without explanation, of someone who was more accountable to the people and more responsive to complaints. This was a Black administrator in the water department there as well. 

So there’s definitely been some concerns about the staffing, and just how responsive and invested the private operator is in truly serving the community.

The report also discusses climate change’s impacts. Can you speak more on how climate change threatens our right to water?

Climate change is a threat multiplier. So whether we’re seeing more extreme droughts or more extreme rainfall and floods, both of those have direct impacts on our water systems. 

Droughts decrease the availability of water, and flooding overwhelms our stormwater systems and causes contamination. We need to address this situation now; sooner rather than later.

One of the issues we’re seeing now is in the Navajo Nation. The Supreme Court recently considered a case about the water rights from the Colorado River, which is famously over-exploited or over-promised to all of these desert cities — to the point where there’s no water left for Indigenous communities who have relied on that same water for thousands of years.

We’re getting to the point where decision-makers are picking and choosing who gets access to finite water supplies. The U.S. signed treaties that claim to ensure the Navajo Nation’s right to live on that land. But in its decision, the Supreme Court didn’t consider protecting drinking water access as part of those treaties.

When our water sources are contaminated and when they are finite, it’s the communities that have been historically discriminated against, and continue to be discriminated against, who lose that water access first.

What the U.S. Needs to Do to Ensure the Right to Water for Everyone

What does the report recommend to ensure all people in the U.S. can access safe, affordable water and sanitation? What role would the WATER Act play?

Transparency was one of the major asks that the Jackson, Mississippi community members spoke about in their testimonies. And that, again, was about the lack of transparency in the notices and communications from their utility. It was also the lack of transparency in hiring practices. That’s definitely something that we want to elevate. 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights doesn’t just address the right to life and anti-discrimination. It also includes access to information and political participation as key tenants. 

Our recommendations fall under information transparency, in general. Without transparency of the data, the situation, it’s impossible to measure how successful we’re being.

The WATER Act is about funding but it’s also about transparency. The Biden administration has taken some really great steps in terms of increasing our infrastructure funding for drinking water. 

However, they’re nowhere near the levels of funding that we need to truly address these issues nationwide. So the WATER Act really steps that up based on the science that we have available. It asks for a far better amount: $35 billion a year. 

And the transparency part: the WATER Act calls for monitored reporting of the data collected because our federal databases are old. They’re out of date. They’re not being updated regularly. Not since 2004, for some of them. 

That, then, causes data collection to fall on utilities, which are resisting that when advocates push for it. Only a few states now have data transparency laws for their utility services. 

But we need to have this mandated at a federal level. So those are some really key areas that the WATER Act will help address. 

The WATER Act will provide the funding we need to ensure clean water for everyone. Urge your members of Congress to support it!

Has the Human Rights Council shown interest in this report and the concerns around discrimination in access to safe water? What outcomes do you hope to come from this process? 

The process has a lot of different steps and stages. In September, there was a briefing to members of the UN Human Rights Committee, where advocates talked about each of their reports. 

During that briefing, a committee member from Ethiopia specifically reached out. He’s an expert in climate change and water access, and that’s one of his major concerns. He asked specifically about our report on drinking water and discrimination. 

That was really incredible. Advocates are really looking for someone to champion their issue to the Human Rights Committee because that dramatically increases the chance that our recommendations will be included in the Committee’s final conclusions.

The main issue that he was asking about was the transparency problems. We have been in communication and sent a follow-up report on that. We’ll be meeting with him, one-on-one in Geneva, hopefully strengthening that advocacy in that partnership from the inside. So that’s really exciting.

The Committee’s formal conclusions are really important, not only because they’re validating to the coalition partners and community members who we are seeking to amplify, but also because they add to the written record of America’s failures to deliver on this human right.

That can be pointed to again and again as we continue this advocacy, because we’re not naive about the swiftness of America’s responses to any UN conclusions from this review.

But what we care a lot about is documenting these failures and meeting with Human Rights Committee members, meeting with U.S. agency officials, and creating those relationships.

Then we can bring those relationships back home, where we can continue to reach out to them, push them on these issues, and hold them accountable to promises that they’ve made in Geneva or the interest they’ve expressed.

Update (November 20, 2023): In November, the UN Human Rights Committee released its Concluding Observations, which specifically call out U.S. water crises and how they disproportionately impact Black and Indigenous communities. 

The Committee recommended that the U.S. “reinforce existing measures to prevent life-threatening water [crises], including toxic contamination of water systems, and ensure access to safe and clean water for its population.” 

PHRGE’s efforts mark a new milestone in U.S. water rights advocacy, as this is the first time the UN Human Rights Committee has made recommendations on water issues in the United States. 

Additionally, the UN Special Rapporteur on racism recently visited the United States and released a statement detailing what she learned and saw during her visit. This statement included environmental racism related to water issues, specifically mentioning the water crises in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi. 

As the intertwined issues of water access, human rights, and environmental racism gain more recognition, Food & Water Watch will continue fighting with allies for clean water for all.

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