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Informational Resources

Human Right to Water and Environmental Justice Resources

Additional Information Resources


"The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” (United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights)

The United Nations General Assembly recognized the right to water and sanitation on July 28, 2010, acknowledging that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential for realizing all human rights. One-hundred twenty-two nations voted in favor of the resolution. The United States was one of 41 countries abstaining (http://www.un.org/press/en/2010/ga10967.doc.htm), stating that the Resolution’s description of the right to water and sanitation is not reflected in existing international law, and that the legal implications of declaring a human right to water had not been fully considered (http://www.un.org/press/en/2010/ga10967.doc.htm).

Later that year on September 30, the UN Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body within the UN responsible for promoting and protection all human rights around the world, affirmed the human right to water and sanitation by consensus, further specifying that the right is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. The U.S. did join this consensus, which, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water, Catarina de Albuquerque, represents a political commitment to helping citizens realize the right to water and sanitation. Proponents of the human right to water and sanitation acknowledge that while the U.S. has made unparalleled progress in providing water services to most citizens, persistent failures and violations remain in providing safe and clean water, especially in poor, minority, and rural areas.

In the U.S., only the state of California has passed a human right to water bill, addressing the issue legislatively. The only two state constitutions that mention a right to water are Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Article XCVII of the Massachusetts Constitution states “people shall have a right to clean‚Ķwater." Article I, ¬ß 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution says “people have a right to...pure water.”

The following offers selected reports and resources addressing the human right to water and environmental justice in the U.S. Both have relevance in the struggle to achieve universal access to safe drinking water, but the two concepts are distinct. “The human right to water refers to a substantive right to the underlying environmental resources--and this right extends to all people by virtue of being human--whereas environmental justice refers to disproportionate environmental impact on a discrete population” (http://www.waterlawsymposium.com/sites/default/files/Willamette%20Law%20Review%20Article%20on%20CWC.pdf).

United Nations General Assembly Human Right to Water and Sanitation Resolution (A/RES/64/292) (July 28, 2010)

United Nations webpage announcing the adoption of the resolution http://www.un.org/press/en/2010/ga10967.doc.htm

The Right to Water. Fact Sheet No. 35 (2010)
United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; UN Habitat, World Health Organization

This publication explains what the right to water is, how it applies to specific individuals and groups, the obligations of states and other organizations to promote and protect human rights, and monitoring the right to water and holding states accountable.

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation [in the United States], Catarina de Albuquerque (August 2, 2011)

This report summarizes the findings of an independent United Nations expert regarding the ways in which the human right to water and sanitation is being realized in the U.S. The report found problems of discrimination in drinking water and sanitation services, and offers recommended actions, including developing a national water policy and plan of action addressing the right to water and sanitation, ensuring that policies and programs reach the most hidden and poorest populations, and shifting to a holistic systems approach such as integrated management of all water uses.

Our Right to Water: A People’s Guide to Implementing the United Nation’s Recognition of the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation in the United States (May 2012)
Food & Water Watch

This document describes the issues surrounding the right to water and sanitation in the U.S. including, violations of these rights, vulnerable populations and discrimination, and U.S. engagement in international financial institutions. Recommendations for implementing a National Plan of Action on the Right to Water and Sanitation in the U.S. are provided.

California’s Assembly Bill No. 685 (Human Right to Water Bill) (September 25, 2012)

This bill is an act to revise the California Water Code to include the human right to water. It declares that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” The bill requires that all relevant state agencies take this policy into account when revising, adapting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria that are pertinent to the water uses defined in this bill.

The Human Right to Water Bill in California: An Implementation Framework for State Agencies (May 2013)
International Human Rights Law Clinic, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

In 2012 California passed the human right to water bill (AB 685), and became one of the first U.S. states to recognize this right. The law guarantees the right to safe, affordable water without discrimination; prioritizes water for personal and domestic use; and delineates responsibilities of the state’s public officials. The purpose of this document is to guide state agencies as they implement AB 685.

A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy--Chapter 3: Water and Environmental Justice (July 2012)
Amy Vanderwalker; Pacific Institute in A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy, by Juliet Christian-Smith and Peter H. Gleick, with Heather Cooley, Lucy Allen, and Amy Vanderwarker, and Kate A. Berry

Despite U.S. advances in providing water systems and services to most if its population, the benefits of these services are not equally shared across regions, communities or populations. This lack of access to safe and clean water results in adverse consequences and has led to growing environmental justice efforts to ensure water policies do not discriminate and are based on respect, justice, and equality. Environmental justice research indicates that low-income communities and communities of color face disproportionate environmental burdens ranging from high concentrations of hazardous industrial facilities to contaminated groundwater and other water injustices. This chapter identifies examples of water injustices and their underlying causes, and offers recommendations for incorporating environmental justice into federal water policy.

US Human Rights Network's Hearing Request to Address “Barriers to Access to Safe and Affordable Water in the United States” (July 28, 2015)

This letter from human rights advocacy organizations requests a hearing during the 156th period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The groups propose that the hearing “address human rights violations generated by the lack of access to clean and affordable water for domestic purposes that disparately impacts racial minorities in urban, rural, and tribal areas across the United States.” The groups propose to present legal standards that set out the U.S. obligations to address the right to water and make recommendations for the U.S. to fulfill those obligations. The letter was submitted by the U.S. Human Rights Network on behalf of 17 community-based organizations, three law schools/clinics, four law schools and individuals.

Implementing the Human Right to Water in California’s Central Valley: Building a Democratic Voice Through Community Engagement in Water Policy Decision Making. (5/1/2011)
In the Willamette Law Review (WLR), No. 3, Spring 2011, pp 495-537
Rose Francis & Laurel Firestone
Link to the WLR journal:

This article explains the water challenges facing California’s Central valley residents and what implementing the human right to water means and how it can be achieved. The authors present a case study about the Community Water Center’s (a nonprofit organization) collaborative experience with communities in California’s Central Valley to achieve the human right to water and sustainable water justice. They outline four components to achieving universal access to safe, affordable drinking water: physical infrastructure, source water protection, institutional capacity, and community power; and discuss their approach to community empowerment through community engagement. Community empowerment, the authors state, is key to enabling environmental justice communities to hold water policy decision makers accountable and is critical to sustainability.

Tapped Out: Threats to the Human Right to Water in the Urban United States (April 2013)
A project of the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute Fact-Finding Program.

This report looks at the causes, effects and solutions to the affordability crisis affecting water in the urban areas of the U.S. through its examination of water shutoffs as a means to enforce payment of bills in Detroit and Boston.

The Drinking Water Disparities Framework: On the Origins and Persistence of Inequities in Exposure (April 2014)
In the American Journal of Public Health, Vol 104, No. 4
Carolina L. Balazs, PhD., and Isha Ray, PhD.

This journal article describing the “Drinking Water Disparities Framework,” developed by the authors, explains environmental injustice with regard to drinking water in the U.S. Using five years of field data collected from 2005 - 2010 in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the authors identify natural, built, and sociopolitical factors that affect state, county, community, household actors and constrain communities’ access to safe water and financial resources, subsequently producing social disparities in exposure to drinking water contaminants. The authors posit that a combination of policy decisions, lack of access to physical and financial resources, regulatory failures, a community’s lack of resources to mitigate contamination, and local residents’ political disenfranchisement contribute to the origins of environmental injustice related to drinking water. Research and policy recommendations are suggested.

Built Environment Issues in Unserved and Underserved African-American Neighborhoods in North Carolina (November 2008)
Sacoby M. Wilson, Christopher D. Heaney, John Cooper, Omega Wilson

This article sheds light on built environment issues that are typically understudied or ignored by researchers and which negatively impact unserved and underserved small communities. The authors focus on the small southern town of Mebane, NC, and the denial of water and wastewater services to residents, which are the result of environmental injustices, including unhealthy land use decisions, and pose health risks for residents.