By Laura Landes, Master of Environmental Management, Nicholas School of the Environment 2019

The report recently published by the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), in partnership with the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, “Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the United States,” is unlikely to be soon forgotten by anyone who reads it. An eye-opening and in-depth study of the issues of access to adequate sanitation services in rural America, placed in the framework of global human rights, it serves as a call to action to the United States. It calls for further study of the challenges and barriers to adequate sanitation faced by rural communities and for the U.S. to recognize that adequate sanitation services are a human right.

The report details many of the inequalities faced by rural communities, communities of color, and low-income communities. The main case study presented is Lowndes County, Alabama, where our team at Duke, which has been working with the community for over five years through the ACRE-Duke partnership, has been studying the environmental injustices surrounding raw sewage. It also showcases similar issues across the U.S., showing that this is not an isolated problem. One of the points made in the report that was interesting and compelling concerned the erosion of trust in public institutions. Public institutions (for example, state public health or environmental protection agencies) have failed to earn or keep the trust of marginalized communities because they have overlooked, ignored, criminalized, and often forgotten them. This raises the question of how institutions can work to rebuild trust and provide basic human rights, such as the right to water or sanitation, in communities that they have ignored.   

A major part of the problem is that communities are often not given the opportunity to participate in decision-making. This directly links to one of the tenets of the global human rights framework as explained in the report: the right to participate in public affairs and decision-making. To quote the report: “governments must ensure that ethnic, racial, and religious groups participate in policy formation so that decision-making reflects their unique circumstances, and aims to address discrimination… What this means is that people who experience violations of the right to sanitation need to be involved in defining the problem, as well as in identifying and testing solutions” (emphasis added). This emphasis on participation has been missing from the conversation, but hopefully now that the issue is gaining more attention (for example, from coverage of the visit of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to Lowndes County and the introduction of bills in Congress to provide funding to address this problem), states and the federal government will take this message to heart. I hope that institutions and those who hold power inside and outside of institutions make an effort to include communities in the problem-solving process. Through a collaborative process, I hope they can develop solutions that are based in community knowledge and needs, and re-build the trust that has been lost.

This requirement for community participation is a key principle that our team has worked hard to incorporate into the work we do in Lowndes County. We never go anywhere in Lowndes County without being invited, and we travel with local residents who introduce us to their community. We try to work with ACRE and Lowndes residents on their priorities for change. Consent and participation of a community are key to just and effective solutions, a lesson I know I will take with me just as I know I won’t forget the sense of an urgent need for just solutions evoked by this report.


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