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Human Rights Institute

The Human Right to Water in Marginalized Communities in the United States

Each year, Georgetown University Law Center’s Human Rights Institute conducts a human rights fact-finding mission. The 2012-2013 mission topic (chosen by a student committee the previous academic year) was “The Human Right to Water in Marginalized Communities in the United States.” The mission was designed and led by students participating in a year-long practicum course on fact-finding methodology taught by Rachel Taylor, the Institute’s Director. In January 2013, students traveled to Detroit, Michigan and Boston, Massachusetts to conduct interviews with people affected by or knowledgeable about the economic inaccessibility of water.

In the United States, the cost of water service is rising faster than inflation and faster than rates for any other utility.[1] According to the National Consumer Law Center, “current water services are unaffordable for many low-income consumers [and] the problem will only get worse.”[2] The Human Rights Institute’s 2012-2013 Fact-Finding Project seeks to conduct an inquiry into the economic accessibility of water, looking in particular at the trade-offs people are forced to make to pay for water, what they do when their water is shut off, and the effect economic accessibility of water has on peoples’ enjoyment of internationally-protected human rights.

The human right to water, as articulated by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, includes economic accessibility, requiring “direct and indirect costs and charges associated with securing water must be affordable, and must not compromise or threaten the realization of other Covenant rights.”[3] In the words of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, who visited the United States in 2011, “direct and indirect costs and charges associated with securing water and sanitation must not compromise the ability to pay for other essential needs guaranteed by other human rights such as the rights to food, housing, education and health.”[4]

During her visit to the United States, the Special Rapporteur noted that the combination of increasing quality standards and aging infrastructure is leading to increases in the cost of water and sanitation which impose burdens on lower-income households severe enough to create the kinds of difficult financial choices the Right to Water forbids.[5] In addition to making recommendations at the federal level here in Washington, the Project submitted its findings to the Special Rapporteur’s office as further evidence of the extent to which the human right to water for low-income individuals is in fact threatened by high costs in the United States.



[1] Brett Walton, “The Price of Water 2012,” Circle of Blue (10 May 2012), at ¶7. (Reporting Michigan State University Institute of Public Utilities claim, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.)
[2] National Consumer Law Center, “Water” (Issue Brief), at ¶2.
[3] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “The Right to Water” (General Comment 15),U.N. Doc. E/C.12/2002/11 (2002), at 12(c)(2).
[4] Catarina de Albuquerque, “Mission to the United States of America” (Addendum to ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation’),U.N. Doc. A/HRC/18/33/Add.4 (2011), at C(47).
[5] Id. at C(48-49).

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