Water as a Human Right
Santa Clara law students partner with a national coalition to focus on violations of the human right to water and sanitation.
World Water Day is March 22, a day we celebrate because of water’s vital importance for all life. But water is also a human right. International law and the laws of several U.S. states, including California, recognize the human right to water. To realize this right, governments should ensure that everyone has equal access to safe, affordable, and adequate water and sanitation.
However, as the Flint lead poisoning crisis so tragically demonstrates, certain communities in the U.S. are excluded from these basic necessities and instead must rely on contaminated water, find ways to survive a water shutoff when water becomes unaffordable, or learn to live amongst raw sewage in the absence of sanitation infrastructure. At the same time, although equality and non-discrimination are bedrock principles of human rights, it is predominantly low-income communities of color and indigenous peoples who lack access to safe, affordable, and adequate water and sanitation in the U.S.
In response, communities across the country are taking action, and Santa Clara Law's International Human Rights Clinic is working alongside them. Law students have partnered with a national coalition to focus the attention of the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the U.S. federal government on violations of the human rights to water and sanitation in the U.S., including in Flint, Michigan. On March 22, three Santa Clara Law students are in New York, supporting a panel of water justice activists to bring their expertise about the harms suffered by women and girls in the absence of adequate water and sanitation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. They also successfully advocated for inclusion of a coalition representative in the White House Water Summit, seeking to elevate the voices of affected communities in a national conversation intended to generate solutions to the nation’s water crisis. On April 4th, Clinic students will support community members in presenting a hearing on the human rights to water and sanitation in the U.S. before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and an inter-agency panel of U.S. government officials. This hearing will be the starting point for a more constructive dialogue on how to generate sustainable, community-driven solutions to the stark inequalities faced by low-income communities of color when it comes to the human rights to water and sanitation.
The human right to water tells us that we have to move past the finger-pointing that has dominated the government response to Flint to focus on what matters: everyone deserves safe, affordable, and adequate drinking water and sanitation, and it’s the government’s job—at every level of government—to make that happen as a matter of urgency. As we recognize World Water Day, we all have work to do, and through the International Human Rights Clinic, Santa Clara Law students are doing their part.
Britton Schwartz is a Clinical Fellow at the International Human Rights Clinic in Santa Clara University’s School of Law.