By Onuoha Odim, Duke University Public Policy Undergraduate, Trinity 2020

Flushed and Forgotten sheds light on California’s Central Valley and communities along the U.S.-Mexico border which have faced structural neglect leading to lack of safe drinking water and sanitation. Along with structural neglect, the report explains that residual segregation oftentimes also exacerbates the lower level of political interest in these communities by the State. For example, the predominantly latinx city of Modesto in California remained unincorporated despite being surrounded by white neighborhoods that were regularly being annexed as cities. Because of this, Modesto was not included in development projects and therefore faced disparities in sanitation. Only after suing the County on the grounds of discrimination was the whole city of Modesto able to be annexed and create its first sewer line by a state grant.

As explained by Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the United States, some unincorporated areas experience greater difficulty in gaining access to proper sanitation infrastructure because they do not have their own independent self-governing status and often lack a local official to advocate for their interests, instead relying on county officials. Counties, however, often fail to provide these services because of limited political will and scarce resources, therefore leaving these communities without adequate infrastructure.

Lack of proper wastewater infrastructure also exists for residents in disenfranchised communities like Alabama’s Lowndes County. In Lowndes County some residents live with straight piped systems that lead to waste back-up in backyards and residential areas which has resulted in hookworms being present in the area. Activism by interested parties, including academic activism like the Duke-ACRE Partnership and Columbia partnership with ACRE to engage with human rights mechanisms on sanitation and wastewater, has been key to bringing light to this predicament of inadequate wastewater infrastructure.

Unincorporated areas and disenfranchised communities both face these structural problems and even with more attention coming to Lowndes, County the problem of inadequate wastewater infrastructure still exists. The inability to find affordable methods to replace failing septic systems coupled with the region’s racialized past has led to some residents still living with waste in their backyards. Through the Duke-ACRE partnership to study environmental injustice surrounding raw sewage, students have been able to work directly with Catherine Flowers to understand how to best discuss and address this wastewater issue in both the isolated case of Lowndes, County and in the larger U.S. where residents of unincorporated communities face similar issues.

Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University’s report, Flushed  and Forgotten,provides a comprehensive analysis of wastewater issues and sanitation needs across the Country. The report brings to light underlying reasons for structural inequality in unincorporated and disenfranchised communities by discussing the existence of residual segregation and structural neglect that has lead these communities to live with inadequate wastewater infrastructure. Taking this human rights framework, has also lead project teams in the Duke-ACRE partnership to be more aware and attentive to how the country’s racialized past has led to underlying structural inequality.