Deep Dive: Water Access

The United Nations recognizes that access to water and sanitation are human rights. Water access is often interconnected with other socioeconomic and environmental issues, disproportionally affecting low-income communities and communities of color. According to research published by the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, households with insecure water access are more likely to be low-income, nonwhite, renter, and immigrant. Across the country, some of the most affluent cities have the highest shares of “plumbing poverty, suggesting that urban water access problems are a product of structural inequality.

Lessons from Virginia

In the United States, two states, California and Virginia, have passed legislation affirming the human right to water. Virginia’s human right to water resolution was passed in early 2021, and includes high-level goals to reduce pollution of waterways, mitigate climate change impacts, ensure that affordability of water is achieved, and reduce or eliminate water shutoffs as a consequence of nonpayment.

To learn more about Virginia’s resolution, watch our State Policy Showcase on the Human Right to Water, featuring Food and Water Watch.

Key Policy Language

The House Joint Resolution No. 538, Water is a Human Right established that the General Assembly of Virginia recognizes that access to clean, potable, and affordable water is a necessary human right. Specifically, 

  1. Access to clean, potable water in amounts that will ensure an acceptable standard of living is a necessary human right; 
  2. The use of water for personal and domestic uses, such as drinking, sanitation, and food preparation, should be prioritized over the use of water by commercial or industrial entities.”
  3. Effective strategies should be used by state agencies to limit contamination of water by residents, but most importantly to ensure the reduction of pollution by commercial or industrial entities, and mitigate the impact of climate change on the Commonwealth’s freshwater resources;
  4. Direct or indirect costs to connect, deliver, and provide water should not be a hindrance to the access of water, and the costs of access to water should not compromise the ability to pay for other essential items, such as food, housing, and health care, so that no one is deprived of water because of inability to pay; 
  5. Access to water for schools currently without adequate safe drinking water should be addressed as a matter of urgency;
  6. Relevant state agencies are strongly encouraged to consider that water is a human right when revising, adopting, or establishing policies and regulations, especially when those policies are pertinent to personal and domestic uses; 
  7. A statewide water affordability program would ensure that every household can afford to pay its water, wastewater, and stormwater bills based on the household’s income through percentage of income payment plans with arrears management; 
  8. Water service disconnections for nonpayment are contrary to promoting public welfare and public health, and the Commonwealth must protect vulnerable populations, including seniors, youths, and medically compromised individuals, from water service disconnections; and 
  9. The act of unauthorized reconnections of water services that were disconnected for an inability to pay should be decriminalized.”

Advocacy and Implementation

Delegate Lashrecse Aird championed the joint resolution. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Delegate Aird vocally opposed water shutoffs occurring in the City of PetersburgStrong support from Food and Water Watch and Virginia Interfaith Power and Light (VAIPL) helped lead to the successful passage of the resolution. VAIPL’s policy priorities include an ongoing focus on water justice. They are continuing to build off of their grassroots letter campaign to state legislators by collecting stories of water access, asking community members to share information that may be helpful for others to consider when thinking about water access challenges in their communities.

Specifically, VAIPL is asking community members the following questions:

“Have you or your community ever experienced any of the following: 

  • Water shutoffs due to high water bills? 
  • Lack of easy access to drinkable water? 
  • Lead and other contaminants in your drinking water? 
  • Billing and payment administration challenges? 
  • Water infrastructure failures?” 

Food and Water Watch (FWW) Southern Regional Director Jorge Aguilar drew connections between public utilities struggling to improve their infrastructure, privatization of water systems, and equitable access to clean water in his explanation of FWW’s efforts to implement the human right to water in Virginia. In partnership with VAIPL, an education campaign was launched to connect with legislative allies in tandem with research into California’s Human Right to Water to come up with the desired language.  After reviewing the language, Delegate Aird pre-filed the bill and the state NAACP endorsed the legislation, along with another resolution by Aird declaring that racism is a public health crisis. The Virginia Black Caucus also endorsed the resolution.  

Next Steps

The resolution provides a framework for how Virginia may begin to make the human right to water reality, but its language lacks teeth as a non-binding document. Additional legislative and legal action will need to flesh out the aspiring words. Part of Governor Northam’s plan for American Rescue Plan funding, which was approved in August 2021, allocated a $411 million investment in water infrastructure and improving affordable water access, with “$50,000,000 to the Department of Health to support equal access to drinking water at small and disadvantaged community waterworks. Another $120,000,000 is for utility assistance to help provide direct assistance to residential utility customers with accounts over 60 days in arrears.  

FWW and VAIPL are continuing to generate ideas around creating a water trust fund, income-based ordinances or other long-lasting funding mechanisms for the state to deploy.