Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the US

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

New report and Congressional briefings stress the need for stronger legal protections, enhanced funding, community participation, and greater accountability to ensure basic needs are met

The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, yet it struggles with profound poverty, inequalities and disparities in access to services. Across the country, many rural communities lack access to one of the most basic services: sanitation. Wastewater infrastructure is failing, inadequate, or non-existent. This leads to the perpetual presence of wastewater in and around homes and takes a significant toll on individuals' mental and physical health. Without an adequate system to dispose of wastewater, individuals are at risk of environmental contamination and diseases such as hookworm. Lack of adequate sanitation further perpetuates cycles of poverty and marginalization through impacts on education and employment.

The causes and consequences of the sanitation crisis are explained by advocates from across the country in a set of Congressional briefings on May 9, 2019 and detailed in a new report: "Flushed and Forgotten: Santiation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the US." The report is co-authored by Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. A number of human rights students, including Maia Berlow (Columbia College ’18), Gina Kim (Columbia University M.A. ‘19), and Hunter Zhao (Columbia University M.A. ‘20) as well as Columbia Law School students contributed to the research and drafting of the report.

The report zeroes in on the experience of rural communities in Alabama, Alaska, Appalachia, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, the Navajo Nation, North Carolina, Ohio, Puerto Rico, and Texas.

"In Lowndes County, Alabama, and many of the surrounding areas, lack of basic amenities that many Americans take for granted is a way of life,” says Catherine Flowers, Founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and one of the authors of the report. “Families that have been living in their homes for decades can’t let their kids go outside, because their front yards fill up with the waste from the toilets.” 

Dr. Inga Winkler, co-author of the report and a lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University notes: “Initially we were focused on Lowndes County, Alabama, but we quickly realized that the sanitation crisis is a nation-wide problem based on structural neglect and exclusion.” Winkler continues: “In all these communities, the impact of the sanitation crisis falls disproportionately on Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities and people living in poverty. What emerges is a picture of extreme inequalities. While the large majority of people across the United States flush and forget, many rural communities lack access to one of the most basic services:  sanitation.”

JoAnn Kamuf Ward, co-author of the report and supervisor in the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, adds “Once there is recognition that there is a nation-wide sanitation problem and that many in the United States do not have the luxury to ‘flush and forget,’ steps can be taken to ensure adequate and affordable sanitation systems for all, including through improved data collection, transparency, and participatory decision-making.” 

The human rights framework focuses on examining and eliminating the underlying structural causes of inadequate sanitation and wastewater failures. While soil conditions, geography, and infrastructure play an obvious role in shaping access to sanitation in communities, the most significant underlying factor is political choice. Over decades, political choices have resulted in the marginalization and exclusion of rural communities of color across the United States. Addressing sanitation challenges through the lens of human rights requires a shift in decision-making to prioritize safety, accessibility, and affordability for the communities most in need.

For a brief summary of the report see HERE.

For the full report see HERE.