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Fellow Britton Schwartz and 3 IRHC students attend Inter-American Commission on Human Rights water-rights event in D.C.

Fellow Britton Schwartz and 3 IRHC students attend Inter-American Commission on Human Rights water-rights event in D.C.

Water as a Human Right

Santa Clara Law's International Human Rights Clinic says clean, accessible and affordable water is a human right for Americans and the world.

The national crisis over Flint, Michigan’s lead-contaminated water shines a spotlight on a growing problem, one which Santa Clara University’s International Human Rights Clinic has been actively fighting for the past year.

The issue is that aging water infrastructure, industrial or agricultural waste, and civic neglect is choking off access to clean, affordable water for a growing number of Americans – usually those who are poor, non-white, or from women-led households. In other cases, economic downturns are making water and sanitation increasingly unaffordable for low-income families, even as cities impose increasingly onerous burdens on citizens for not having running water or proper sewage systems.

Water-access problems are rife even in California, which as recently as 2012 passed the nation’s first state law declaring water a human right and is currently working on a longterm plan for access to safe drinking water for all. Currently, though, “on any given day there are 1 million people in California who don’t have access to safe drinking water,” says Francisco J. Rivera Juaristi, director of IHRC.

Having no access to clean, affordable water isn’t just a health hazard or an inconvenience, attorneys from IHRC say. It’s also a violation of human rights as enshrined in key international treaties, several UN resolutions to which the U.S. is a party, as well as the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

"The U.N. has recognized the human rights to safe, affordable and adequate water and sanitation, and we have plenty of international, federal, state and local laws in place to ensure that we respect and protect these rights,” said Rivera. “But what we are seeing from the U.S. is systemic violations of these obligations, as well as increasing efforts to undermine this legal framework.”

To combat this problem, IHRC lawyers and students from Santa Clara University School of Law have taken the battle across the U.S.:

*They are supporting a nationwide coalition fighting for the human rights to water and sanitation in the U.S., representing affected communities across the U.S., in partnership with the US Human Rights Network.

*They’ve contributed research, writing, and advocacy to a nationwide coalition of groups dedicated to human rights to water and sanitation in the U.S.

*As members of the nationwide coalition, they’ve drafted a set of policy recommendations calling on the U.S. government to take immediate action to ensure equal and universal access to safe, affordable, and adequate water and sanitation in the U.S. Last week, they drafted a letter from the coalition to President Obama, calling on the Executive Branch to stop allowing these violations.

*They’ve supported victims of water contamination, mass water shutoffs, and sanitation injustice to tell their stories at a series of events in Washington, D.C., including a meeting with federal agency officials and a hearing before an international human rights body.

*They are supporting leaders from affected communities to speak at a UN event at the March meeting of the UN Commission on the status of women, about the intersection of women’s rights and the rights to water and sanitation

*They are petitioning to speak about human-rights aspect of US water and sanitation problems before the White House’s Water Summit in March for World Water Day and before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Lack of clean water and sanitation can have other unexpected, devastating consequences for victims. In cities facing mass water shutoffs like Baltimore and Detroit, families have been forced to live without running water for as long as two years, and in neglected rural areas like Alabama’s Black Belt region, families have no access to sanitation services, exposing their children to parasites and other diseases previously thought to be eradicated in the U.S.

To add another terrifying layer to the problem, in places like Detroit, access to running water in a home can be a factor in determining parental neglect. But often water becomes too expensive in blight-stricken cities that have fewer and fewer residents shouldering the full water-infrastructure costs.

“So because a family can’t pay what’s become a $2,000 water bill, their water gets shut off and they are then at greater risk of losing their children -- all because they are poor,” said Rivera.

The urgency of the decreasing access to clean, affordable water and adequate sanitation in the U.S. has made the issue one of the IHRC’s top policy priorities for the past year, and it is expected to remain a priority for the foreseeable future, says Britton Schwartz, clinic fellow who has worked extensively on water-rights issues.

“We at Santa Clara are doing our part,” said Schwartz. “But it’s heartbreaking to see what families are going through. As a nation, we have to do better, and we need to do it now.”