UN Expert Connects U.S. Water and Sanitation Struggles to Poverty

Two-week visit includes examination of sewage failures in Alabama.

A tent on the streets of San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons user Jeremy Brooks

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

As Congress debated a tax cut that would transfer an enormous amount of wealth from America’s poor and middle classes to its rich, a United Nations expert was visiting people already pushed over the edge by poverty. He found, not surprisingly, the gulf between the top and the bottom is enormous and growing.

“The way in which those in the bottom 20 percent exist is in dramatic contrast to the wealth in the country and it is being exacerbated by further trends,” said Philip Alston, a New York University law professor and the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, after a two-week U.S. tour that ended on December 15 in Washington, D.C.

Alston’s observations were a comprehensive condemnation of America’s approach to poverty — an approach, he argues, that prevents poor people from exercising their civil rights. He criticized punitive drug policies, inadequate funding of children’s health care, voter registration restrictions, false narratives that paint the poor as “lazy,” and the criminalization of the very acts — urinating, sleeping, or sitting in public places — for which the homeless often have no other option.

“In cities in which provide no public toilets, what do we expect? What would most of us do?” Alston asked.

Alston’s findings also reflect how the widening gap between rich and poor in the United States worsens the country’s challenges for drinking water access, sanitation, and health. Just this year those challenges were embodied in a hepatitis A outbreak among California’s homeless population and the broadening discussion over the cost of tap water for the poor. Even international organizations that primarily work in developing countries are intrigued by circumstances here. UNICEF and the Global Water Challenge co-sponsored a conference in November to discuss water and sanitation access among marginalized communities in the United States.

In the first two weeks of December, Alston crossed the country, hearing from civil rights campaigners, government officials, and people living on the streets. He visited a community health clinic in West Virginia and neighborhoods in Puerto Rico that were wrecked during Hurricane Maria.

In Los Angeles, he met homeless people living in Skid Row, a 50-block area near downtown where health advocates have raised concerns about toilet access. An audit earlier this year found an inadequate number of public toilets and fewer functioning ones. More than one-third were not open when they were supposed to be.

In Alabama, Alston toured homes in Lowndes County with insufficient sanitation. Some homes had broken septic systems. Others, lacking even rudimentary equipment, piped toilet waste into backyard pits or nearby creeks. The buildup of human waste in the environment contributes to the cycle of poverty. Medical researchers, in a study published in September, found hookworm in Lowndes County residents, a disease associated with living conditions of the early 20th century.

Alston was invited to Lowndes County by Catherine Flowers, executive director of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise. Flowers has been instrumental in bringing attention to sanitation failures in rural Alabama. With the UN rapporteur’s visit, she wanted to make the connection between poverty, polluted drinking water, and unsanitary conditions in the United States. “I wanted to highlight that,” she told Circle of Blue. “I didn’t know that it would be discussed elsewhere.”

Alston noted that data on the scope of sanitation problems in Alabama and West Virginia are missing. “In neither state was I able to obtain figures as to the magnitude of the challenge or details of any government plans to address the issues in the future,” he wrote.

The last time a UN poverty rapporteur visited the United States on a fact-finding mission was in October 2005. That rapporteur’s report mentions water and sanitation mostly in reference to the fetid conditions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The UN rapporteur on drinking water and sanitation visited the United States in 2011. Catarina de Albuquerque met with communities in California, Maryland, and Massachusetts to learn about access in a rich country in light of the UN’s declaration, in 2010, of a human right to water.

Alston’s report will be published in the spring of 2018 and then presented to the Human Rights Council.