(Blog post by IHRC students Christine Biggen, Analiese Danner, and Anya Thepot.)
The International Human Rights Clinic at Santa Clara Law (“Clinic”) continues to make strides in the promotion and protection of economic, social, and cultural rights. Last Spring, the Clinic focused on violations of the human right to water in Costa Rica. This semester, the Clinic joined forces with the Berkeley Human Rights Clinic, the US Human Rights Network, and a number of other NGO and advocacy organizations to highlight violations of the human right to water in the United States.
First, on September 15, 2015 the Clinic submitted a report before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”) revealing how thousands of low-income, minority, and native communities from all over the U.S. and Puerto Rico lack access to safe and affordable water and sanitation. The report raises concerns about serious issues such as toxic contamination, massive water shutoffs, mismanagement of funds, and infrastructure problems in these communities. Citing various case studies, the report describes, for example, how the groundwater of the Red Water Pond Road community (RWPRC), located within the Navajo Nation in northwestern Mexico, has been contaminated with uranium from nearby mining sites. In California’s Central Valley, agricultural runoff and pesticides have also contaminated community water sources at levels far above those considered acceptable by EPA standards. In Northern California, the government’s water policies fail to take into account concerns raised by the Winnemem Wintu tribe that sacred sites will be flooded if California realizes its plans to raise the water level of a nearby dam. Residents of low-income counties in Alabama’s Black Belt region are being criminalized for having an inadequate septic system or none at all. Alabama law requires residents to have an adequate sewer system, but many cannot afford to purchase a tank and therefore face arrest. Failing sewer systems also cause raw sewage to be piped into their homes and nearby grounds, with serious health consequences for residents.
In ‘Colonia’ towns on the US-Mexico Border in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas, occupants are forced to create their own sewage systems because their unincorporated locations allow state governments to avoid enforcing building or land-use codes. Due to the lack of adequate sanitation services, community members suffer health problems including cholera, skin infections, viruses, and intestinal disorders. In Puerto Rico, the government’s rationing efforts in response to a drought left thousands with access to water only two days a week. Additionally, in an attempt to get rid of its homeless population, the city of Sacramento has severely limited access to basic water and sanitation services by closing public restrooms, decommissioning water fountains, and forcing homeless populations to dispose of human waste at public restrooms located miles away from tent cities. Similarly, thousands in low-income and minority communities who cannot afford rising water costs in major cities such as Detroit, Boston, and Baltimore face the loss of water and sanitation services due to mass disconnections for unpaid accounts. Many water shutoffs are carried out without regard to their effects on potentially vulnerable individuals like young children, the elderly, and the very ill. Finally, the report also highlights positive developments like the Philadelphia city council ordinance that increases access to affordable water through income-based payment plans and a debt forgiveness program for low-income individuals. The law also prevents housing foreclosures caused by unpaid water bills.
In addition to this report, the Clinic and our coalition partners participated in a flurry of activities in Washington D.C. on October 21-23rd to raise awareness about these issues and to call for action. The main reason for the trip was to participate in a hearing on the right to water in the Americas before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The U.S. Human Rights Network had requested the hearing back in July 2015 on behalf of a large coalition of U.S. groups. Because of the Clinic’s expertise with the Commission, the U.S. Human Rights Network requested the assistance of the Clinic to prepare for the hearing. The Commission granted the hearing and scheduled it for October 23rd, broadening its scope to encompass not just the right to water in the U.S., but throughout the Americas. Consequently, the coalition decided to develop several side events in D.C. to take full advantage of our time there.
First, we met with representatives of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the Department of State (DOS). Representatives of several of the affected communities provided these federal agencies with information about how the lack of access to water and sanitation affects their communities. Among other requests, the coalition asked the government to provide emergency assistance; implement a moratorium on shutoffs; end the criminalization of those who lack safe, affordable water and adequate sanitation; prevent and remediate contamination of water sources and hold polluters accountable, and pass national legislation to guarantee equal access to safe, affordable water and adequate sanitation, without discrimination. The government representatives responded positively to our requests, and indicated they understood the urgency of the situation and the need to address it.
We also had a panel discussion at Georgetown University to generate awareness about these issues. Several speakers gave testimony about their community situation and we met with students from the Georgetown and NYU human rights clinics. We then headed to the gorgeous offices at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights for a meeting with more than thirty community members, activists, and attorneys from the U.S. and Latin America to prepare and practice our joint testimonies before the Commission.
Commissioner Paulo Vannuchi, who is in charge of the Commission’s Unit on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and other staff attorneys at the Commission met with our coalition for over an hour to discuss our concerns in more detail. Here, community members again presented powerful testimonies. Commissioner Vannuchi asked that we submit more information about these issues to the Commission, and emphasized that both he and the Commission are very interested in the human right to water.
On October 23, we held another public event at the United Methodist Center near the Supreme Court. This longer forum provided an excellent opportunity for our coalition members to fully tell their stories. We were excited to have the participation of Dr. Inga Winkler, who works with U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Hopefully, the exchange of ideas that took place in this event will lead to further collaboration and action.
The week’s events culminated with the hearing before the Inter-American Commission. The hearing went smoothly, the witnesses spoke eloquently and passionately, and the Commissioners showed much interest in this issue. An official video of the hearing can be found here, and photos can be seen here. Several news media outlets covered the hearing, including Public news service, the Huffington Post, NPR [at 1:54 -2:40], Storify Tweets, and a great article by The Nation.
Overall, our work in D.C. proved to be a wonderful experience. We were able to observe and participate in a complex advocacy effort involving dozens of individuals and organizations working on behalf of thousands of affected communities. It was very informative, exciting, and there was an undeniable sense of solidarity and community. We have a new sense of motivation as we work hard to finish our report on the human right to water in the U.S. Next semester, the Clinic and its coalition partners will continue their efforts to ensure that access to safe, clean water and sanitation is a right that can be enjoyed universally.