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Rural U.S. Communities Face a Sanitation Crisis Finds the Human Rights Clinic

New report and Congressional briefings stress the need for stronger legal protections, enhanced funding, community participation, and greater accountability to ensure basic needs are met ​

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 9, 2019 – Communities across the country lack basic sanitation, leading to health and environmental crises that largely affect individuals living in poverty, advocates explained in a set of briefings before Congress, organized by Earthjustice to foster attention to this national problem and catalyze solutions.

The causes and consequences are detailed in a new report, Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the US.  The report, co-authored by Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, calls for laws and policies that address the specific needs of rural communities.

In the context of federal discussions on infrastructure spending, the report urges policymakers to focus on wastewater infrastructure needs. A recent study found that an estimated 1.5 million people live in homes without complete plumbing. Yet many existing sanitation systems are failing. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ grade for wastewater infrastructure.

“In Lowndes County, Alabama, and many of the surrounding areas, lack of basic amenities that many Americans take for granted is a way of life,” says Catherine Flowers, Founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and one of the lead authors of the report. “Families that have been living in their homes for decades can’t let their kids go outside, because their front yards fill up with the waste from the toilets.” 

The report zeroes in on the experience of rural communities in Alabama, Alaska, Appalachia, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, the Navajo Nation, North Carolina, Ohio, Puerto Rico, and Texas.  Inga Winkler, co-author of the report and a lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University notes: “Initially we were focused on Lowndes County, but we quickly realized that the sanitation crisis is a nation-wide problem based on structural neglect and exclusion.”

Winkler continues: “In all these communities, the impact of the sanitation crisis falls disproportionately on Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities and people living in poverty. What emerges is a picture of extreme inequalities. While the large majority of people across the United States flush and forget, many rural communities lack access to one of the most basic services:  sanitation.”

In rural U.S. communities where poverty is prevalent, functioning and affordable sanitation systems can be out of reach. On-site wastewater systems are common, and law and policy place the burden of costly sanitation and wastewater solutions on those most in need--who are often least able to afford them. Failing and inadequate infrastructure reflect the fact that all too often these communities are forgotten, if not deliberately excluded from decision-making.

“The existing laws don’t help – in fact, they are part of the problem,” Flowers continues. “Through the laws, individuals are blamed and criminalized for failing systems. Yet, there is not enough investment in systems that would work. When local voices are included in developing solutions, and when equal access to effective wastewater solutions is made a priority, we can advance the right to sanitation that is essential for ensuring life with dignity for all us.”

The report finds that that neglect and disregard for basic sanitation is a nation-wide problem that places an undue burden on individuals living in poverty, and disproportionately harms Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities.  It concludes that all levels of government share responsibility for monitoring and implementing human rights, and provides recommendations for federal, state, tribal, and local governments to foster equal access to affordable sanitation that is consistent with globally recognized human rights standards.

As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States has the means to address this sanitation and wastewater crisis.  “Change can never occur without recognition,” says JoAnn Kamuf Ward, supervisor in the Human Rights Clinic and Director of Human Rights in the U.S. Project at the Human Rights Institute. “Once there is recognition that there is a nation-wide sanitation problem and that many in the United States do not have the luxury to ‘flush and forget,’ steps can be taken to ensure adequate and affordable sanitation systems for all, including through improved data collection, transparency, and participatory decision-making.”  The report details policy recommendations, and calls for increased resources, coordination, and monitoring, as well as an end to the criminalization of poverty.  These steps are critical to ensuring sanitation and wastewater systems for all in the United States, regardless of their identity or socio-economic status.

The House Briefing was co-sponsored by Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Doug Jones (D-Al).  The Senate Briefing was co-sponsored by Terri Sewell (D-Al) & TJ Cox (D-CA).

Flushed and Forgotten is available on the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute’s publication page, here.

And the fact sheet can also be accessed here.

Flushed and Forgotten is the product of a collaboration between the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.  The lead authors were Catherine Coleman Flowers, Founder and Director of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Lecturer-in-Law and Director of the Human Rights in the US Project at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute & Supervisor in the Human Rights Clinic, and Inga Winkler, Lecturer in the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.

The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice is an NGO that works to address root causes of poverty, deepen the human rights analysis of the current situation in rural communities.  The Center works in partnership with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) to support efforts to frame local, national, and international advocacy in human rights terms.  ACRE works locally in Alabama, and focuses on advancing access to water and sanitation.

The Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) at Columbia University is committed to its three core goals of providing interdisciplinary human rights education to Columbia students, fostering innovative academic research, and offering its expertise in capacity building to human rights leaders, organizations, and universities around the world.  Its Program on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights seeks to ensure greater attention to and integration of these rights in current debates.  ISHR research assistants Maia Berlow (Columbia College ’18) and Hunter Zhao (Columbia University M.A. ‘20), supervised by Inga Winkler, contributed to the drafting of the report.

Earthjusticethe largest environmental law organization in the country, works to protect the people and the planet from harmful pollution, and supports advocacy to improve access to water and sanitation.