Clinic News

New Report Offers Road Map to Implement Human Right to Water in California (5/14/13)

Water Report Cover

BERKELEY, CA. – May 14, 2013 – Twenty-one million Californians lack access to safe and affordable drinking water. Many live in low-income and marginalized communities with aging and dilapidated water pipes that pump groundwater contaminated with nitrates and other toxins into homes and schools.

On September 12, 2012, Governor Brown signed AB 685, the human right to water bill, making California the first state in the nation to explicitly recognize the human right to water. AB 685 aims to ensure universal access to safe water by recognizing that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water.”

In a new report, “The Human Right to Water Bill in California: An Implementation Framework for State Agencies,” the International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) provides a road map for implementation by state agencies. The report draws on domestic and international law to map when state agencies should consider the human right to water, what factors they should consider, and how they should advance the human right to water. Berkeley Law students Angélica Salceda ’13, Christine Zülow LLM ’13, and Kimya Saied ’14 authored the report under the supervision of IHRLC Associate Director Roxanna Altholz and Clinical Instructor Allison Davenport.

“The lack of access to clean water in California has serious health and financial consequences that disproportionately impact low-income communities of color,” said Altholz, “AB 685 requires state agencies to address the human costs of unsafe water.” AB 685 places the human right to water at the center of state policy and underscores the crucial role of state agencies in improving access by underserved communities.

The report outlines a framework for state agencies to address water challenges affecting diverse populations living in urban, tribal, rural and unincorporated communities. “Residents living in disadvantaged communities navigate endless water politics and barriers in an effort to access clean drinking water,” said Salceda. “Our report provides a roadmap for breaking down those barriers and advancing the human right to water for all Californians.”

The report also calls on the Governor’s Office to adopt the framework and issue agency-specific guidance that ensures “an effective and coordinated approach” to implementation. “AB 685 provides the opportunity to move beyond the convoluted and opaque system that currently exists,” commented Davenport, “and to put in place a comprehensive and common-sense approach to water quality and affordability issues in the state.”

The report recommends that state agencies look to the international definition of the human right to water to establish clear policy objectives with the aim of ensuring that all Californians have sufficient, safe, acceptable, accessible, and affordable water. “Under international standards, the cost of clean water should not exceed 3 to 5 percent of household income,” remarked Zülow, “but in some California communities with contaminated water, residents spend 20 percent of a median annual income of $14,000 to pay their water bill and purchase bottled water.”

The report also identifies human rights principles—such as non-discrimination, public participation, and accountability—that should guide efforts by state agencies to implement AB 685 and foster good governance. A central theme of the report is the importance of meaningful participation by affected community members in the decision-making by state agencies. “All too often,” stated Saied, “the communities facing the most serious water problems are not at the table when decisions affecting them are made and, as a result, real solutions are never reached and the problems persist or even worsen.” The report recommends that agencies produce mutli-lingual materials, make water quality data readily accessible to the public, and facilitate public input in water governance decisions.

“The recommendations in the report are the starting point and not the end itself,” commented Salceda. “The state should continue to push for policies that prioritize communities that lack safe water and ensure their vigorous implementation.”

Read the report:
The Human Right to Water Bill in California