By Katy Hansen, PhD Candidate, Environmental Policy

What is the capacity of local governments to invest in water service provision? Proponents of the human right to water (HRW)—which aims to ensure universal access to sufficient, safe, and affordable water—argue governments must allocate adequate resources to progressively realize the right. However, claims to a HRW in the United States are uncertain and constrained by limited financial resources. This summer, I am working at the Environmental Finance Center at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government to evaluate the capacity of local governments in North Carolina to invest in water service provision.

CA Assembly Bill No. 685: The California Water Bill

Before California passed legislation in 2011, the right to water was not explicitly guaranteed anywhere in the U.S. However, Catarina de Albuquerque (2006), a Special Rapporteur appointed by the Human Rights Council, claims the state and federal constitution creates a framework to enforce the right to water indirectly through the nondiscrimination and equal protection of the law provisions, but notes “without the ability to ground such claims as an explicit right, the success of such claims remain uncertain (pg. 4).” Proponents hope the HRW will be incrementally realized as state agencies and departments revise existing policies, adopt new policies, and change funding criteria to reflect the goal of accessible, safe, and affordable water provision (Brown Miller, 2011).  

Local governments would most likely be responsible for protecting and fulfilling much of the HRW in the U.S., because local governments assume responsibility for water service provision (Amirhadji et al., 2013). Some municipalities, counties, and special districts own and operate public utilities; others partner and contract with private water service providers.  These local governments would need to develop strategies to give effect to the HRW, allocate budgets, and monitor progress. While the vast majority of residents in North Carolina have access to water, service provision is not universally accessible, safe, and affordable. Municipal, industrial, and agricultural discharges pollute lakes, rivers, and aquifers with high levels of bacteria, nitrates, and pesticides.  

The ability of local governments to provide sufficient, safe, and affordable water is constrained by limited financial resources. Water systems are expensive to construct, operate, and maintain, especially for smaller water systems (IHRLC, 2013).  Many municipalities are unable to collect sufficient revenue to guarantee service. Celine Dubreuil (2006), a Program Officer for Water at Plan Bleu, argues the financial mechanisms to realize a HRW must be clearly defined and understood by all involved.  

Although funding is often a significant obstacle, de Albuquerque (2014) argues governments should take progressive steps to implement the HRW by using “the maximum available resources” and targeting expenditures towards those with the greatest need. I am analyzing data from the NC Treasury to determine how many resources are available to invest in each of the 420 municipal water systems. This analysis will help local governments determine whether their debt capacity is adequate to make necessary investments.