“Living money-poor is risky. Living money-poor and unincorporated is scary… Living money-poor, unincorporated, and black is terrifying.”

-Danielle Purifoy, PhD Student of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Human Rights Research Grant Recipient

These powerful words capture the struggle of generations of black families living in a small Alabama county. In Lowndes County, residents must pay for their own above-ground sewage systems, which cost more than what some families in the area take home in a year. Faced with an impossible situation, these homeowners live with resurfaced pools of sewage in their yards and contaminated water in their faucets.  The Alabama Department of Public Health has responded to this need not with sanitation projects, but with arrest warrants. The people of Lowndes County are being arrested for sanitation code violations because they cannot afford septic tanks. The families are marked as criminals and, in some cases like those seen in Detroit, this criminalization could provide legal grounds for the state to take children from their parents, despite there being no other evidence of child abuse. All across the United States, from Flint, Michigan to Lowndes County, issues of poverty, race, sanitation, water, infrastructure, and civil law tie together in tangled social webs that trap people in unjust environments. If justice is a practice based on principles of fairness and equality, can a system of law which prioritizes the administration of code above the human dignity of entire communities be considered real justice? What would justice look like for communities all across the U.S. that are unable to access a basic right to clean water and sanitation? What would justice look like for the people of Lowndes County?



Catherine Flowers and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE)

These are questions that Catherine Flowers takes seriously. Flowers is the Executive Director and founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, a nonprofit organization which focuses on leading participatory community development projects to improve infrastructure and quality of life in poor, rural communities in Alabama. Flowers also works with the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization which provides legal assistance to promote civil and environmental justice for marginalized communities, with a specific focus on challenging policies that trap racial minorities in cycles of poverty and injustice.



ACRE and DHRC@FHI Partnership

The Duke Human Rights Center@FHI and the Nicholas School of the Environment began partnering with Flowers and ACRE in the fall of 2014. This partnership led to the creation of the Environmental Justice Community Research Project in the summer of 2015. The five undergraduate and three graduate Duke students involved with this community research project conducted field research, which consisted of surveys and interviews with community members and was facilitated by the ACRE, to provide a foundation for understanding the convergence between environmental justice, poverty, and access to sanitation infrastructure and to enable further research on how to address these problems and mitigate their consequences.

The Partnership Today

The DHRC@FHI is excited to announce that this partnership is continuing with the return of Catherine Flowers to Duke as a Practitioner in Residence throughout 2017. If you are interested in learning more or getting involved with Flowers and the work of the ACRE, please contact Erika Weinthal at erika.weinthal@duke.edu or Betsy Albright at elizabeth.albright@duke.edu

More information coming to this page soon!


Interested in learning more about the issue? Check out some of the resources below:

Infographic on Water and Sanitation in the U.S. – A visual summary of water and sanitation issues across the United States (U.S. Human Rights Network)

The Plight of the Poor: Raw Sewage in Lowndes CountyThe Equal Justice Initiative’s summary of environmental justice issues in Lowndes County (Equal Justice Initiative)

Hookworm Infections and Sanitation Failures Plague Rural AlabamaDetails the health consequences of poor sanitation in Lowndes County and historical context of the link between race, poverty, rural communities, politics, and poor infrastructure (Circle of Blue)

U.S. Preaches Human Rights Across the Globe, but Fails to Provide Black and Poor People a Basic Human RightThe U.S. water and sanitation crisis in international context (Atlanta Blackstar)

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and SanitationA UN report on water and sanitation standards across the U.S. (United Nations Human Rights Counsel)

Water Affordability is a New Civil Rights Movement in the United StatesInsight on the politics of the U.S. water crisis and more information on the “Water is a Right” movement (Circle of Blue)

Beyond COP 21: Articulating Climate Realities and SolutionsDescribes the link between environmental justice issues, poverty, race, and climate change (Catherine Flowers for Patheos.com)

Climate Change Threat to Public Health Worse Than Polio, White House WarnsMore on the link between environmental justice, human rights issues, and climate change (The Guardian)

Black Belt Infrastructure = Black PowerHistorical context on the relationship between politics, poverty, race, and infrastructure in the “Black Belt” of Alabama (Danielle Purifoy Blog Post)

Living UnincorporatedDescribes the political issues which keep Lowndes County unable to self-govern and thus address infrastructure and sanitation issues in ways that promote the welfare of the community (Danielle Purifoy Blog Post)

Water Could Soon Be Unaffordable – More on rising water bill costs and the impact that this is having on lower income communities (The Huffington Post)