US discriminates on right to safe water and sanitation, says UN expert

Catarina de Albuquerque

4 March 2011 – The United States must do more to eliminate discrimination in access to safe drinking water and sanitation, an independent United Nations expert reported today, citing wide disparities that adversely affect people of colour and Native Americans.

“I am concerned that several laws, policies and practices, while appearing neutral at face value, have a disproportionate impact on the enjoyment of human rights by certain groups,” said UN independent expert Catarina de Albuquerque, who is mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to examine human rights obligations for access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Quoting a study on the racial impact of water pricing and shut-off policies of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, she noted that for every 1 per cent increase in Boston ward’s percentage of people of colour, the number of threatened cut offs increases by 4 per cent.

At the end of her first fact-finding mission to the country, she also highlighted the fact that 13 per cent of Native American households have no access to safe water and/or wastewater disposal, in sharp contrast with 0.6 per cent in non-native households.

“Access to water and sanitation is further complicated for indigenous people in the US depending on whether they are part of a federally recognized tribe or not,” she said, noting that under international standards, tribal existence and identity do not depend on federal recognition or acknowledgment of the tribe.

“I call for legal action to change the status of unrecognized and terminated tribes to enable all American Indians to gain the respect, privileges, religious freedom, and land and water rights to which they are entitled,” she stressed, calling on the US to ensure that water and sanitation are available at a price people can afford.

Ms. de Albuquerque underscored that ensuring the right to water and sanitation for all requires a paradigm shift with new approaches that promote human rights, are affordable and create more value in terms of public health, community development and global ecosystem protection.

She also urged access to water and sanitation for homeless people, stressing that local statutes prohibiting public urination and defecation, “while facially constitutional are often discriminatory in their effects.

“Such discrimination often occurs because such statutes are enforced against homeless individuals, who often have no access to public restrooms and are given no alternatives,” she said.

She welcomed the fact that the US has recently joined a consensus at the UN on a resolution recognizing that the right to water derives from the right to an adequate standard of living.


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