The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Darcey Rakestraw, 202-683-2467;

Advocates Raise U.S. Water Quality, Access and Pollution as a Civil Rights Issue with the UN


Today, Food & Water Watch submitted a letter to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights outlining several troubling water issues in the United States as the U.S. government is up for review for its federally-mandated compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The letter notes that equal access to clean drinking water is inherently a civil rights issue, listing several areas where the U.S. has failed to protect the human right to water, particularly as it relates to vulnerable populations and the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

"Since the UN recognized the human right to water in 2010, things have not become substantially better for people struggling in the U.S. with unsafe water, high bills, or the effects of industrial pollution from fracking and factory farms," says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "Civil and political rights must encompass the human right to water, which is increasingly under threat by corporations that seek to use and abuse our water supplies for profit."

"Water should be managed as a common resource, not a profit generator," said Maude Barlow, Board Chair of Food & Water Watch and former Senior Advisor to the UN on water issues. "The more we learn about various issues affecting the human right to water in the U.S., including millions of residents having their water shut off because they can't pay their bills, the more there is to be deeply concerned about."

The letter outlines five areas where the U.S. has failed to meet standards under the ICCPR on water:

  1. Water Privatization and Shutoffs: According to a recent Food & Water Watch survey, an estimated 15 million U.S. residents lost water service due to nonpayment in 2016. Meanwhile, privately-owned utility service costs the typical U.S. household 59% more than public water service. Private water utilities have frequently refused to provide basic metrics including information about water shutoffs for nonpayment.
  2. Environmental Discrimination in Siting of Polluting Facilities: An analysis of all permitted industrial facilities across the U.S. shows that the worst emitters of hazardous pollutants disproportionally expose communities of color and low-income populations to chemical releases. These contaminants can also affect local water supplies. A history of racially discriminatory practices has been documented by the Environmental Protection Agency in the siting of such facilities.
  3. Discrimination Against Native American Communities: Thirteen percent of Native tribal members lack safe drinking water or sewer access in the United States, and nearly 30 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives lived in poverty in 2014--approximately double the nation's overall poverty rate. Overall, tribal public water systems are twice as likely to violate health-based water quality regulations as non-tribal systems.
  4. Failure to Modernize Water Infrastructure: The U.S. government has been slow to act to initiate modernization of water infrastructure for a world of more powerful droughts, fiercer floods, and rising seas. The rising climate change impacts and failing infrastructure will fall principally upon lower income communities.
  5. Fracking Contamination Threatens Vulnerable Communities: The U.S. government and states have prioritized water use for oil and gas drilling and livestock, resulting in contamination of waterways and groundwater. The threat is particularly acute in low-income and rural areas and will continue to rise as fracking increases.

The letter, co-signed by The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, and In the Public Interest, recommends several policy approaches that would address these issues. The U.S. should pursue policies that promote local control of water utilities, and Congress should pass the Water Accountability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act, which would provide the needed $35 billion a year to upgrade water infrastructure. It also recommends establishing significant setback provisions for industrial facilities, including concentrated animal feeding operations, preventing construction of such facilities within several thousand meters of residential buildings. Finally, it suggests an outright ban on fracking given the clear risks to our water supplies.

Food & Water Watch mobilizes regular people to build political power to move bold and uncompromised solutions to the most pressing food, water, and climate problems of our time. We work to protect people's health, communities, and democracy from the growing destructive power of the most powerful economic interests.

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