Sharmila Murthy is an Associate Professor at Suffolk University Law School, where she teaches and writes on issues of property law, environmental law, international environmental law, poverty, and human rights.  On Monday, February 25, Murthy will deliver the  Franklin Humanities Institute and Duke Human Rights Center@FHI Annual Lecture: Access to Safe Water: A Human Rights and Civil Rights Perspective.  This interview was conducted over e-mail with Miranda Gershoni, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center.

Miranda Gershoni (MG): How did you get involved in the work you do?

Sharmila Murthy (SM): As an undergraduate, I studied natural resources with a focus on international development and studied disparities in access to key resources such as water. After college, I contributed to several public health and development projects in India. The experience opened my eyes to what life was like without easy access to water. Following law school, I began my legal career as a poverty lawyer in the U.S. and then in 2010, I started a program on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. It was an exciting time to work on these issues; in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

MG: How do issues of poverty and the environment intersect?

SM: People living in poverty are not only the most vulnerable to environmental problems, but they also have the least power to address them. Impoverished communities are less likely to have access to clean air and safe water, are more likely to be exposed to toxic chemicals, and often live in areas that are the most adversely affected by climate change impacts, such as flooding. These large disparities are recognized by the environmental justice movement and by the broadening of the field of human rights to encompass environmental issues.

MG: How can the field of law tackle issues of justice, rights, inequity, and water in the US?

SM: We need to develop laws to ensure that everyone in our country has access to safe water for basic needs, such as drinking, hygiene and sanitation. We have federal programs like public housing, food stamps, Medicaid, and the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program, but nothing similar exists for household water access. If families do not have sufficient water, they are more likely to have health problems and could also be at risk of losing their children. Water is not only a human rights and public health issue, but also an economic issue because the public ultimately bears the cost of the consequences of insufficient water access.

We also need to update our existing laws and regulations to ensure that our water is safe to drink. The recent crisis in Flint, Michigan highlights the need to address lead in water, but there are a host of other chemicals in our water that are not captured by our existing treatment systems. Upgrading and replacing water infrastructure is not cheap, but we need to make this a priority.

MG: What would you say are the most common misconceptions about water access in the US?

SM: Most of us take water for granted, but unfortunately, not everyone in our country has that luxury.

MG: What do you see as the greatest disparities of our time in terms of water?

SM: Nearly one-third of the world’s population does not have access to safely managed drinking water and nearly two-thirds does not have access to safely managed sanitation.

MG: What can people do every day to shift these disparities?

SM: Of course, being mindful of the water that you are using on a daily basis is important. But it is also important to be an engaged citizen. Consider calling your legislators and telling them that you care about improving access to safe and affordable water. 

MG: Can you elaborate on your current scholarship and what your main findings have been?

SM: The research grew out of a collaborative, interdisciplinary project at the Harvard Kennedy School on how innovation and access to technology can promote sustainable development. Because mobile phones have revolutionized so many aspects of our lives, I was particularly interested in how mobile technology could be used to enhance access to safe water. My colleagues and I studied nine “mWASH” apps, i.e. mobile data-sharing applications in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector that transfer information from phones to a central database. Our findings were rather eye-opening. For example, I previously thought that “crowdsourcing” information from mWASH applications would be an effective way to empower communities and to improve water access. In reality, many barriers exist to effective crowdsourcing: people may be unfamiliar with the technology, illiterate or unable to speak the given language, or may not believe that participation will improve their situation directly. As we wrote in our paper:

“The theme that emerges from this analysis is that the actual technology may be less important than the way in which it is implemented. While much excitement centers on the technological tool, a critical point emphasized repeatedly in interviews and at workshops is that the technology is not a goal in itself; rather, it is a tool in service of another goal, like improved performance or customer service. Successfully implementing an mWASH project requires both long-term commitment and the financial resources to ensure continuous monitoring and adaptation.”

However, technology and innovation are only one part of the solution. I also believe that it is important for human rights lawyers to be able to translate their concerns in ways that are understood by practitioners and policymakers. For example, in another recent article, I examined how human rights have influenced the quantitative indicators being developed to track progress with the water, sanitation and hygiene targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. I argued:

“As the experience from the water sector suggests, human rights often seem nebulous and intimidating until they are broken down into calculable elements that can be understood by those in other fields. [A] human rights perspective often demands more information than is currently available and requires using new data-gathering methodologies. . . . This lack of available data and techniques should be understood as [a] human rights issue[] because . . . information is a form of power.”

Human rights advocates, who tend to be trained in law and may not be well-versed in math or statistics, should not throw up their hands in despair when confronted with data gaps; rather, they need to partner with the statisticians responsible for developing quantitative indicators to offer constructive input. Quantitative indicators will never be able to convey the complexity of a problem and they are not a substitute for contextual and qualitative information. But because quantitative metrics will continue to be used as influential policy tools, human rights discourse can improve their scope and ultimate impact.