The ACRE-Duke Partnership to Improve Sanitation Access in Lowndes County, Alabama is a Bass Connections Project that aims to understand the reasons for the lack of proper sanitation in Lowndes County, improve sanitation access in the county and explore racial and economic justice in rural America.  This project extends the Duke Human Rights Center’s ongoing initiatives addressing Environmental Justice and Human Rights.

Over the past several years, stories of failing and inadequate water infrastructure in urban areas of the United States—most notably, the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan—have caught the attention of the media and the public. While attention has increasingly focused on the problem of dilapidated water and sanitation infrastructure in urban America, less attention has been paid to the ways in which the absence or poor quality of existing infrastructure can undermine health and economic opportunities in rural America.

Lowndes County is illustrative of a host of social and environmental inequalities facing rural communities of color in the American South, including endemic poverty, lack of economic opportunity, hazardous health conditions and inadequate infrastructure. Only two municipalities in the county maintain centralized wastewater treatment plants, while the remaining rural population is served by on-site septic systems or lack adequate sanitation. Poor sanitation poses serious health risks. The Baylor College of Medicine found evidence of five tropical diseases, including hookworm (previously thought to be eradicated in the U.S.), in fecal samples from residents.

Since 2014, Duke’s Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), led by Catherine Coleman Flowers, have partnered to address the inadequacy of wastewater treatment infrastructure, which is an economic, racial and environmental injustice entrenched in many communities in rural, black America.  The Bass Connections Project continues this work.  

The team will work with ACRE to develop solutions for a more inclusive and sustainable economy, as access to water and sanitation are necessary for community members to be able to have viable economic livelihoods. Through the lens of the provision of water services, team members will examine three interdependent components: the physical component; the legal framework; and the political and financial dimensions. The team will develop an overarching analysis of the barriers of access to water infrastructure that stem from a history of racial and economic inequities.

Team members will analyze physical, hydrological, regulatory and economic data; conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the most efficient options for sanitation; design more affordable individual and clustered wastewater treatment systems by surveying low-cost technologies that leverage easy-to-install, low-cost materials and tailoring these solutions for Lowndes County; determine the institutional barriers that prevent communities from applying for and receiving financial assistance; and make visible the dynamic connections between ACRE’s wastewater work and a larger story of water, soil and society in Lowndes County as well as the contemporary emergence of “water protectors” and water-based organizing.