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USA: from discrimination to accessibility, UN expert raises questions on water and sanitation

WASHINGTON – UN independent expert Catarina de Albuquerque raised Friday a number of issues on discrimination, availability, accessibility and quality related to water and sanitation in the United States of America, at the end of her first fact-finding mission* to the country.

“The US must do more to eliminate discrimination in practice,” said the Independent Expert mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to examine the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. “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.”

“For example, 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,” said Ms. de Albuquerque quoting a study on the racial impact of water pricing and shut-off policies of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.

The UN expert also drew attention to the fact that 13 per cent of American Indian 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.”

According to 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.

“The US must ensure that water and sanitation are available at a price people can afford,” the expert said. “Ensuring the right to water and sanitation for all requires a paradigm shift – new designs and approaches that promote human rights, that are affordable and that create more value in terms of public health, community development, and global ecosystem protection.”

“Access to water and sanitation must be ensured for homeless people,” the rights expert said. In her view, 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.” (See below - Story of homeless man)

“I received information about serious water quality concerns in various parts of the US, which give rise to concern about health as well as additional costs involved in obtaining safe water,” Ms. de Albuquerque warned. “Those households either unable to afford alternative solutions or forced to make difficult trade offs fall into a protection gap.”

The Independent Expert welcomed the fact that the US has recently joined consensus at the UN on a resolution recognizing the right to water as a right derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have consecrated the right to water in their Constitutions, and a bill has recently been tabled in California to recognize it. “I urge the US Government to follow the good example of some of its States and ratify the international human rights treaties that protect this right.”

Ms. de Albuquerque also called on the Department of State/USAID to ensure that funding of water and sanitation projects reach those most in need, are guided by the normative content of the right to water and sanitation. She noted that the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act is the first instance where U.S. water policy reflects the normative content of the human right to water.

As human rights, all people, without discrimination, must have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, which is affordable, acceptable, available and safe. States must continually take steps to ensure that access to these fundamental rights is guaranteed.

Catarina de Albuquerque (Portugal) currently works as a senior legal adviser at the Office for Documentation and Comparative Law (an independent institution under the Portuguese Prosecutor General’s Office) in the area of human rights. She holds a DES in international relations with a specialization in international law from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. She was appointed as Independent Expert in September 2008 and took up her functions in November 2008.

(*) Check the full end-of-mission statement: http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=10807&LangID=E

Learn more about the Independent Expert’s mandate and work, log on to: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/water/iexpert/index.htm

OHCHR Country Page – USA: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/ENACARegion/Pages/USIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact:
In Washington: Yoonie Kim (Tel.: 011 41 79 752 0483 / e-mail: ykim@ohchr.org)
In Geneva: Lucinda O’Hanlon (Tel.: +41 22 917 9679 / e-mail: lohanlon@ohchr.org) or write to iewater@ohchr.org

Story of homeless man, C. de Albuquerque:

“In Sacramento, California I visited a homeless community, and met with several of its members. I met Tim, who called himself the ‘sanitation technician’ for the community. He engineered a sanitation system that consists of seat with a two-layered plastic bag underneath.

Every week Tim collects the bags full of human waste, which vary in weight between 130 to 230 pounds (60 to 105 kg), and hauls them on his bicycle a few miles to a local public restroom. Once a toilet becomes available, he empties the bags’ contents; packs the plastic bags with leftover residue inside a third plastic bag; ties it securely and disposes of them in the garbage; and then he sanitizes his hands with water and lemon.

Tim has said that even though this job is difficult, he does it for the community members, especially the women.

The fact that Tim is left to do this is unacceptable, an affront to human dignity and a violation of human rights and it must be stopped. An immediate, interim solution is to ensure access to restrooms facilities in public places, including during the night.”