As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 255 city and state governments in the U.S. have suspended utility disconnections resulting from past due accounts (Noor 2020). Health officials, politicians, and the American Water Works Association are further calling for a federal suspension of disconnections, citing the importance of frequent hand-washing and good hygiene as an important tool to stop the spread of the coronavirus (AWWA). This is an important step in this historic moment and many more cities and towns should heed the advice. However, water is undoubtedly essential beyond a pandemic, yet globally, three out of ten individuals lack access to safe drinking water (SDG). While 99% of the U.S. population is reported to have access to safe water, at least 2 million individuals do not (Jagannathan 2019). Given that water is essential for most aspects of everyday life, crucial for public health, and a UN-recognized human right, one can question the necessity of utility disconnections in any circumstance (UNDESA).
Global health crises often expose pre-existing weaknesses in public health systems. Examples of lack of access to clean water exacerbating global health crises abound. For instance, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa revealed this lack as a contributing factor to the spread of the deadly virus (Oxfam 2015). Human-to-human transmission of the virus occurs through direct contact with bodily fluids or surfaces contaminated with bodily fluids. As a result, access to clean water, fundamental to practicing good hygiene and handwashing, is crucial in fighting the spread (WHO & UNICEF 2014). It is perhaps then no surprise that the states worst affected by the Ebola crisis (Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone) place among the lowest 25% of basic water access rates globally.
Within the U.S., perhaps the most widely known water-related health crisis concerns lead poisoning in Flint, MI. A cost-cutting measure changed the city’s water supply source from the Detroit system to the Flint River, resulting in serious water quality issues, including lead poisoning, a condition especially harmful for children (Denchak 2018). While this case has garnered the most attention, it is far from the only place in the U.S. that cannot guarantee safe drinking water. One source estimates that between 9 and 45 million Americans per year acquire water from a source that violates the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for safe drinking water (Bendix 2020). Residents of cities such as Flint are forced to rely on bottled water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking, severely limiting their ability to engage in the type of hygiene and hand-washing recommended by public officials in light of the current coronavirus outbreak. Poor and marginalized populations, generally the first to suffer from water access shortfalls, require tools to access their human right to water. However, the U.S. neither provides a constitutional right to water nor does it recognize the UN Human Right to Water and Sanitation (HRtWS).
Indeed, the U.S. is one of many countries that lacks a constitutional right to water; only 39 states globally include either an aspirational or judicially enforceable right (TIESR). States including Colombia, Gambia, Uganda, Morocco, and Bangladesh all include an aspirational right to water in their constitutions. Further, states including Haiti, Venezuela, Hungary, Belarus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Egypt all include judicially enforceable rights. Notably, unlike the vast majority of states (122), the U.S. did not support the 2010 UN recognition of the HRtWS; instead, the U.S. abstained from the vote (UNGA 2010). Considering ongoing water crises and their ability to impede progress toward public health goals, should we look toward a constitutionalized right to water to solve these issues?
In a recently published article in the journal Water, we examine access to water across the globe from 2000 through 2015, asking to what extent a constitutional right to water or other associated rights (the right to health, for example) are related to improved water access (Schiel et al 2020). In short, the answer is conditional. Instead, we find that states characterized by either a strong rights environments (measured by the total number of economic, cultural, and social rights) or those including a right to either water or health in their constitutions, on average, do not achieve higher rates of basic water access than states with weak rights environments or those that lack a constitutional right to water and/or health. Indeed, rights alone are not enough to expect higher rates of access to water.
However, we theorize that rights likely operate more effectively when taking place in an environment characterized by democratic governance. On examining the existence of the rights to water and health, and the existence of a rights environment, in conjunction with governance, we find striking results. States with higher levels of democratic governance (characterized as rule of law and degree of civil society participation) are significantly correlated with higher rates of basic water access. Thus, healthy governing institutions matter a great deal in making the human right to water work in practice.
Populations lacking access to reliable, clean water are at a greater disadvantage in the current fight against COVID-19. Public health officials advocate frequent hand-washing and practicing good hygiene amid this crisis, yet those lacking access to clean water are unable to follow this advice (Katella 2020; MIT Medical). Our research suggests that rather than pinning hopes for improved water access and quality on the constitutionalization of rights encompassing water access, activists should instead increase focus on democratic governance to realize human rights goals. This is especially relevant as we see countries across the world impose states of emergency, resulting in limits on civil (and even political) rights. In the midst of the fight against COVID-19, backsliding on democratic governance can negatively affect access to water.
Recent events have forced cities and towns across the U.S. to recognize the centrality of clean water access to public health. However, rather than recognizing the importance of water access during a pandemic, recognition of the human right to water, coupled with effective and equitable democratic governance, should be an enduring priority.
American Water Works Association. AWWA recommends postponing water shutoffs. Available from: https://www.awwa.org/Resources-Tools/Resource-Topics/Coronavirus#10681543-shutoffs-and-return-to-service-guidance
Bendix, A. (2020). 12 Cities with the worst tap water in the US. Business Insider. Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/cities-worst-tap-water-us-2019-3
Denchak, M. (2018). Flint Water Crisis: Everything you need to know. National Resources Defense Council. Available from: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/flint-water-crisis-everything-you-need-know
Jagannathan, M. (2019). 2 million Americans don’t have access to running water and basic plumbing. Market Watch. Available from: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/2-million-americans-dont-have-access-to-running-water-and-basic-plumbing-2019-11-20
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Katella, K. (2020). 5 Things Everyone Should Know about the Coronavirus Outbreak. Yale Medicine. Available from: https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/2019-novel-coronavirus/
MIT Medical. Three ways to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. Available from: https://medical.mit.edu/three-ways-to-protect
Noor, D. (2020). The U.S. Should Stop Water Shutoffs During the Covid-19 Pandemic â€“ and Forever. Gizmodo. Available from: https://earther.gizmodo.com/the-u-s-should-stop-water-shutoffs-during-the-covid-19-1842426252
Oxfam International. (2015). Prioritising Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Ebola Recovery: For health, life and dignity. Available from: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/ib-prioritising-wash-ebola-recovery-090715-en.pdf
Schiel, Rebecca, Malcolm Langford, and Bruce M. Wilson. (2020). “ Does it Matter: Constitutionalisation, Democratic Governance, and the Human Right to Water.” Water 12(2):350. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4441/12/2/350
Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Goal 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all. Available from: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/water-and-sanitation/
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United Nations General Assembly. (2010). General Assembly adopts resolution recognizing access to clean water, sanitation as human right. Available from: https://www.un.org/press/en/2010/ga10967.doc.htm
World Health Organization & UNICEF. (2014). Ebola Virus Disease (EVD): Key questions and answers concerning water, sanitation and hygiene. Available from: https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/WASH_and_Ebola.pdf