Opinion

We All Deserve Basic Sanitation and Dignity

How do you define “safe and sanitary conditions”? Does it include a toothbrush? Soap? A place to sleep? Access to toilets? Not according to the Department of Justice lawyers who recently tried to justify the unconscionable conditions in which toddlers are denied basic necessities through a narrow reading of what is required under U.S. law.

The administration’s arguments received significant media attention, which generated public outcry against the conditions in which children are being caged, and buoyed activism to put an end to the detention of children full stop.

What has generated far less empathy and public debate is the fact that every day, more than a million Americans, nearly 540,000 households, are forced to live without basic necessities.

In 2017, the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, received only a D+ grade for wastewater infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Decades of neglect, and historical exclusion of entire communities from infrastructure upgrades have left many behind. Lowndes County, Ala., is one area where the failure to ensure basic rights has recently received global attention. In Alabama, the lack of affordable wastewater and sanitation is coupled with a long history of discrimination and political suppression, including explicit denial of the right to vote.

An estimated 90 percent of households in Lowndes, where the median income is around $28,000, have failing or inadequate wastewater and sanitation. Families face raw sewage backing up into their yards, homes, and bathtubs. They must spend money they don’t have on costly cleanup, and are forced to take off hours from work or school when overflows occur. Residents prohibit their grandchildren from playing outside to avoid playing in feces and wastewater. A recent study confirms that lack of adequate sanitation is connected to a resurgence of hookworm and other parasites. All of this may be also be happening closer to you than you think.

The conditions in Lowndes County are far from unique. Yet they are easy to ignore if you are privileged enough to be able to simply flush and forget.

In Alaska, Appalachia, California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, the Navajo Nation, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Puerto Rico, Texas, and West Virginia, the pattern repeats. Residents struggle to afford the basic ability to use the bathroom with dignity. As detailed in our recent report, the impacts fall disproportionately — yet not exclusively — on black, Latinx, and indigenous communities. White communities living in poverty are affected too.

In rural communities, homes are often too remote to connect to municipal wastewater systems. The costs for alternative onsite wastewater systems can exceed annual incomes. Both municipal and onsite systems can have sewage backups that occur without warning. In response, some residents build their own alternatives to funnel wastewater into nearby ditches or yards. But this can lead to fees, fines, and criminal charges. This can lead to illness and fuels mistrust in the local authorities meant to promote health.

The problem of failing and inadequate systems is only getting worse as climate change leads to increased rains and systems age. A recent Florida study finds that by 2040, 64 percent of Miami-Dade County’s septic systems could harm people’s health and water supply as a result of sea level rise. The number of rural and urban communities that are facing this problem is growing.

Despite this reality, support for small communities and individuals to obtain and maintain wastewater systems that actually work is lacking. So when systems fail, those living in poverty bear the costs, even though they have little say in what systems they have in the first place.

In 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty visited Alabama and noted apathy toward the problem, highlighting that “if you happen to live in one of the poor counties like Lowndes — there isn’t any obligation and there are no plans in place.”

While some argue that sanitation should not be considered a human right, the reasons it is are clear. The global community has recognized access to adequate and affordable sanitation as a basic human right because it essential for an adequate standard of living. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for economic and social protections because they are vital for individuals to live in dignity.

Fulfilling the right to sanitation for all should be the ultimate goal. This will require a paradigm shift. Policies should be designed to promote affordable sanitation systems that enable healthy lives. Government institutions should be accountable when systems fail, rather than placing the burden on the individuals who are the least able to afford it. Embracing the right to sanitation also means no longer punishing families that don’t comply with complex regulations because they cannot afford to pay.

These are not easy fixes. Regulatory reform and financial support for those who need it are building blocks. We will need investment in innovation, with solutions that are designed to meet the needs of those who have been denied decent and affordable services, and with their input.

In a country that prides itself on innovation, ensuring sustainable and affordable sanitation and wastewater management is surely possible. It is financially feasible. It is morally right. And it is necessary for communities to thrive. Without basic services, the ability to exercise any other rights remains compromised.

Catherine Coleman Flowers is the rural manager for the Equal Justice Initiative and founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise & Environmental Justice. Wade Henderson is a senior adviser for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. JoAnn Kamuf Ward is the director for the Human Rights in the US Project at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute.

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