People in Flint Have the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water

By Zeke Johnson, ‎Senior Director of Programs, Amnesty International USA

Comedian Michelle Wolf ended her set at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner recently with the point that “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”

While the state government’s testing may have given the water supply the green light, Flint Mayor, Dr. Karen Weaver and residents say that the crisis is far from over, including because many lead pipes still need to be replaced. The Governor’s decision to stop providing bottled water when only part of the problem may have been solved has only contributed to the lack of trust that Flint residents have in government claims.

Systemic racism and classism also undermine trust in the government. A civil rights commission report found that, “historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias” play a role in the crisis. The population of Flint is approximately 54% black and approximately 40% of the people in Flint are living in poverty.

From a human rights perspective, the people of Flint — or anywhere else — shouldn’t have to worry about their water because of their color, identity or economic status. In other words, water is a human right. The US government should make sure that the city’s water is clean and should continue providing bottled water until full faith in the city’s water infrastructure is restored and demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt.

The human right to safe drinking water is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the foundational agreement of the international human rights system. The right to water is also inextricably linked to the right to health, as well as the right to life and human dignity. The right to be free from discrimination is enshrined in the UDHR as well.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the UN committee that oversees state compliance with the ICESCR further articulate the right to water. The US government signed, but has refused to ratify this treaty — along with many other treaties, including those about children’s rights, women’s rights and the rights of people with disabilities.

While government fulfillment of the right to water will vary with conditions, the following factors apply in all circumstances:

A) Availability. The water supply for each person must be sufficient. The quantity of water available for each person should correspond to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines (13–26 gallons per person per day).

B) Quality. The water required for each person’s use must be safe, and so free from micro-organisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person’s health.

C) Accessibility. Water must be accessible to everyone without discrimination. Accessibility has four overlapping dimensions:

- (i) Physical accessibility: water must be within safe physical reach for all sections of the population.

- (ii) Economic accessibility: water must be affordable for all.

- (iii) Non-discrimination: water must be accessible to all, including the most vulnerable or marginalized sections of the population, in law and in practice, without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds; and

- (iv) Information accessibility: accessibility includes the right to seek, receive and impart information concerning water issues.

Governments have a proactive responsibility to ensure that the right to water is fulfilled, and are also obliged to provide water when people are unable, for reasons beyond their control, to realize that right themselves by the means at their disposal. No one’s health and life should be put at risk due to lack of clean drinking water.

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