The U.S. Water and Wastewater Crisis – How Many Wake-up Calls Are Enough?

In February, much of Texas plunged into darkness when the state’s electricity grid failed due to extreme cold weather conditions. What started as a foreseeable blackout quickly became a life-threatening calamity. The frigid temperatures cracked pipes and froze wells. To escape the frigid cold, have drinking water, and flush toilets, Texans were forced to boil snow and icicles. The extreme weather conditions and lack of basic amenities resulted in several fatal cases of hypothermia, frostbite, and carbon monoxide poisoning. More than 14 million people in Texas were affected, and lost access to clean water at the height of the crisis. At the beginning of March, there were still nearly 390,000 people who did not have water safe enough to drink in their homes.

This catastrophe illustrates what happens when aging and inadequate infrastructure is hit by extreme rain or snow—an increasingly regular occurrence due to climate change. And like with many tragedies, Texas’ devastation became a political media spectacle. The state governor’s attempt to blame renewable energies and deny responsibility made front pages, as did the images of Texas Senator Ted Cruz who fled to warmer temperatures to avoid discomfort. Much of the coverage of Texas’ disaster within the United States expressed shock of “third-world” conditions so close to home. However, even a cursory look at the United States shows that inadequate water and sanitation are more of a norm than an exception.

What happened in Texas was both predictable and preventable. February’s blackout and the lack of water resulted from failed political leadership and poor planning at the state level. The chronic lack of disaster preparedness and the move to deregulate the Texan electric grid ignored years of warnings from scientific and energy experts. 

The disaster laid bare a widespread, yet still largely invisible, human rights crisis within U.S. borders: the lack of access to adequate sanitation and clean water, which impacts health and life expectancy, and makes housing uninhabitable.

And, the matter extends well beyond Texas. Over 2 million people across the country lack access to adequate sanitation and clean water, according to a 2020 report, Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States. Flint, Michigan, has gained notoriety for failing to provide clean water to residents, and the community fight for justice is ongoing. Last month, Jackson, Mississippi, made national headlines for its water crisis as water outages left more than 70 percent of the city’s residents without safe drinking water. The COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather events have also exposed the longstanding American wastewater and sanitation crisis, which had received much less coverage than drinking water until recently. Black, Indigenous and Latinx populations disproportionately live without access to sanitation, and have had the highest infection and fatality rates from COVID-19. Responsive investments in rural plumbing and wastewater infrastructure represent some of the targeted solutions that have gained traction over the last year.  This is as true in the United States as it is globally.

Advocacy focused on Lowndes County, Alabama, where it is estimated that 90 percent of residents lack adequate wastewater systems, has been central to the “discovery” of this widespread problem. But Lowndes is far from alone. In Centreville, Illinois, residents have struggled with raw sewage flooding their property for years – it not only smells, it is dangerous. In these communities, sewage backs up into residents’ yards and homes, often leading to health problems that include infections, like hookworm, and other tropical diseases that were thought to be eradicated in the United States.

It is easy to forget that, within U.S. borders, communities have long endured the conditions seen in Texas in February. In most instances, the challenges precede climate change. But climate change is turning the water and sanitation crises into a state of emergency. The problems faced by the Indigenous peoples from Alaska to the Midwest foreshadow what may soon be the reality for all Americans. In The Bethel-Central Yup’ik and Stebbins regions in Alaska, flooding from melting ice and snow — sinking land due to thawing permafrost — seep into flush tanks in households and mix with sewage regularly. In the Navajo Nation, the springs, where people used to be able to obtain water, no longer flow, as a result of climate change and environmental degradation.

Like Texas, the federal government has ignored calls to improve water and wastewater systems. For decades, the American Society of Civil Engineers has graded national infrastructure. In 2021, the United States scored a C- for drinking water and a D+ for its wastewater infrastructure. Between 2001 and 2017, a D+ was the highest grade the United States received for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. A D grade denotes a high risk of failure and a dire need for revamping decaying infrastructure. One 2020 global environmental protection index ranked the United States behind 31 other countries, including Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Chile, Latvia, Slovenia, Spain, and the U.K. Clearly, the U.S. has been on notice that something needs to be done.

Where can the United States go from here? 

On February 26, President Joe Biden’s “climate czar,” Gina McCarthy, called Texas’ devastation “a wake-up call,” and committed to “building back better.” This effort must start with the basics—ensuring that water reaches everyone.

Building back better requires far-reaching solutions to improve water access and prepare for climate-related disasters. Biden has already taken some initial steps in this direction. During his first week in office, he announced that the United States had officially rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change and signed two executive orders prioritizing climate as central to U.S. national security. The administration has spoken about creating a “whole of government” approach to climate policy. Moreover, Biden’s newly announced $2 trillion infrastructure plan is a promising first step. The plan includes an injection of $56 billion to upgrade and modernize water and wastewater systems across the United States in the face of climate change threats. The plan faces opposition from Republicans, but Congress is also taking action. In March, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021. This Act calls for $50 billion in direct spending on wastewater infrastructure and local water systems. Moving forward these investments, and other complementary measures, will require bipartisan cooperation and collaboration between all levels of government. Political support is essential to both averting catastrophes and improving the infrastructure that is indispensable for adequate and affordable water and sanitation for all.

The United States, however, need not forge a new path alone. The international human rights framework offers pathways to addressing the sanitation crisis, which sits at the intersection of climate change, longstanding inequality, and a history of infrastructure disinvestment.

In 2010, the United Nations adopted a formal resolution recognizing the rights to water and sanitation, and called on governments to utilize “financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer … to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all,” obligations derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a number of human rights treaties. The U.N.’s formal acknowledgement that water and sanitation are essential components of an adequate standard of living reflects lived experience and provides a normative foundation for policy. In 2010, the U.N. established an independent expert on safe drinking water and sanitation, who monitors compliance with these human rights norms. The Sustainable Development Goals further prioritize ensuring water and sanitation for all via Goal 6. Some countries, such as Kenya, the Maldives, Mexico, and Uruguay, already protect the right to sanitation in their national constitutions.

The components of the right to sanitation are straightforward: Safe and quality wastewater and sanitation should be affordable, accessible and available without discrimination. Governments are responsible for prioritizing universal access. In practice, this means tracking and addressing the disparities in access to adequate sanitation, including through disaggregated data, adopting affordability standards, prioritizing implementation in historically marginalized communities, and providing redress when this right is violated.

The Biden-Harris administration has offered some signs that an overhaul of the American water and wastewater infrastructure could be guided by human rights norms. Historically, the United States has given lip service to economic and social rights, but the reticence to adopt international human rights principles into domestic law has never actually abated.

Last week, in a stark departure from the prior administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that “[a]ll human rights are also co-equal. There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others.” The federal government’s readiness to re-engage with global human rights principles was also apparent last month, when the United States heeded recommendations from other governments to improve sanitation and wastewater systems as part of the U.N. Universal Periodic Review of the United States.

With political will and leadership, human rights can guide domestic regulation and legislation, and galvanize investments in the communities that need it most. Grounding policy in human rights will also signal that affordability is a priority and provides a basis for collaboration at the federal, state, and local levels. Water and sanitation are not privileges, they are fundamental rights, and all Americans deserve them.

Image: Marie Maybou melts snow on the kitchen stove on February 19, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Ms. Maybou was using the water to flush the toilets in her home after the city water stopped running. Winter storm Uri brought historic cold weather causing people to lose their water as pipes broke throughout the area. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Lucía Falcón Palomar

Lucía Falcón Palomar (@LuciaFalconP)is an LL.M. student and Human Rights Fellow at Columbia Law School.

Obinna Maduka

Obinna Maduka is an Attorney from Nigeria, who has worked in the private sector, as well as on a range of human rights and humanitarian issues. He is an LL.M. Human Rights Fellow at Columbia Law School.

JoAnn Kamuf Ward

Director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute and Supervisor in the Human Rights Clinic. Follow her on Twitter (@JoAnnKWard).