Why is sanitation still a privilege, not a right?

This is not an uncommon sight in Lowndes County, Alabama: a stream of sewage waste flowing out of a crude pipe and into the surrounding yard of a resident who just flushed a toilet inside their home. More than 10% of the county’s population, which is three-quarters black, lacks access to a comprehensive plumbing system.  Some people in the county’s larger areas are connected to a centralized sewage disposal system. The rest should be using septic systems, which treat the waste at their homes. But the median household income in Lowndes County is $28,000, and a septic system can cost $30,000. So up to 90% of residents who should be relying on septic systems have one that’s broken, or don’t have one at all. Instead, they lean on straight piping running waste directly through a pipe out of their homes and into their yards, leading to exposure to human waste that can result in diseases that were though to be eradicated in the U.S.

A new report, coauthored by Catherine Flowers, founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, says that residents both in Lowndes County and in the many other rural communities across the U.S. that lack good access to plumbing should not have to bear the cost of treating their waste themselves. “The issue is in the U.S., we still treat sanitation like a privilege,” Flowers says. She and her co-organizers are calling, instead, for a human-rights approach to sanitation in the U.S., one that aligns with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 6: ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Right now, the U.S. is far from that target. While data on access to sanitation is limited, the research team behind the report estimates that 540,000 households comprising 1.5 million people lack access to good plumbing systems in the U.S.. The problem is concentrated in rural and native communities, like Appalachia, the Navajo Nation, and across the South and Midwest. The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the U.S. a grade of D+ for wastewater infrastructure, in both municipal and on-site systems, in 2017. That near-failing grade reflects the fact that municipal systems are often poorly maintained, leading to sewage backups or flooding, and individual systems are often inadequate or lacking.

It also underscores the fact that the policy framework in the U.S. is not designed to support equitable access to sanitation. There are two federal laws the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act that govern sanitation, but for the most part, enforcement and policy is left up to state, local, and tribal governments. However, most funding comes from federal sources and is allocated to larger scale or municipal projects. Communities like those in Lowndes County, where sanitation is often left up to individuals or clusters of residents, often cannot access those funds.

The current policy and funding structure, Flowers says, further marginalizes and criminalizes the people who lack access to sanitation and cannot afford it. Because methods like straight piping are technically illegal, households that use it to dispose of waste run the risk of being fined, which adds an additional cost burden but doesn’t remedy the core issue of lack of access.

A human-rights approach to sanitation, Flowers says, starts with the principle that for everyone, access to functioning and safe systems is a right, not a privilege. That, the report authors say, has to form the basis for how sanitation access in the U.S. is designed going forward. Municipal sewage systems should be regularly upgraded. Local, state, and federal governments should coordinate resources to create funding pools for people who don’t have the financial means to buy and maintain septic systems. Instead of criminalizing people who cannot comply with sanitation requirements, governments and nonprofits should support them financially and structurally to come into compliance.

The people who cope with issues around sanitation daily are the ones who have the most insight into what the particular stressors are Lowndes County residents, for instance, know that heavy rainfall causes the larger systems to flood, so the solutions built out to replace them must be designed to withstand those conditions.”The most important thing is to give a voice to people that live in communities that are impacted the most,” Flowers says.

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