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Q&A: Water as a Human Right

Rausser College faculty on the political, social, and economic factors that cause inequities in access to safe and affordable water.

Isha Ray Professor

Energy and Resources Group

Isha Ray's projects focus on access to clean water and sanitation for the rural and urban poor, and on how technology improves or hinders sustainable development and social equity. Ray frequently serves as an expert group adviser to UN Women and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). She is a member of the Lancet medical journal's Commission on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, and Health (WASH), which aims to reimagine and reconstitute WASH as a central pillar of public health and a pathway to gender equality and environmental justice. In July, Ray will complete three years of service as Rausser College's Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion.

Image of Isha Ray

Photo: Copyright UC Regents

What led you to study water and sanitation?

While studying the economics and governance of irrigation early in my career, I lived in a village in western India for 11 months while conducting primary fieldwork. I lived without a bathroom—something many people experience all their life. Water was scarce. During extreme shortages, we had to rinse our plates into a clean bowl and then drink that water. About that time, I started to shift my research focus to water as a human right-a daily necessity for quality of life, dignity, and well-being. My work incorporates social, economic, and philosophical perspectives on water and sanitation.

What's so critical about water?

When we think about the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals, there really aren't any that can be met without access to safe water. Yet water is a resource you can't control very well. It's always leaking and seeping where it isn't supposed to be—literally, figuratively, and metaphorically. And managing it is an environmental justice issue, because the marginalization of certain communities, more than physical scarcity, has led to a lack of access to safe water and sanitation. Water is connected to everything; it's not just a resource for people. All life forms depend on clean water.

How does gender fit into your work?

The burdens of inadequate water access and unsafe sanitation are disproportionately borne by women, especially low-income women who already experience a lot of suffering and deprivation. Around the world, water work—fetching, treatment, allocation, and management within the home and community—often falls to women as an unpaid chore. Many technologies that aim to increase access to affordable, safe water are often considered low cost, but that is because the labor upon which they rely is assumed to be free. While this discrepancy is generally known, it hasn't been fully incorporated into the evaluation of technologies or when accounting for labor costs. If we continue to promote these technologies as low cost, then we cement existing gender disparities.

Is access to safe water improving around the world?

Almost all countries have been on an upward trajectory for water access over the past few decades, but progress has not been equal. There are still many marginalized and deprived communities, whether that be in a poor village in the international context or in low-income African American urban communities or Latino farmworker communities in the U.S., to name a few. These deprivations are not a matter of chance, but rather the result of structural inequality bias.

Who is responsible for assessing that bias and for increasing access to safe water?

Historically, wherever nations have achieved near-universal access to water and sanitation, it has been with the strong presence of government investment or regulation. Of course, nonprofits and charities do important demonstration projects. Once in a while, such as with rainwater harvesting in Asia and Africa, these projects can even go to scale. Internationally, it's rare for the private sector to focus on the most underserved communities because delivering water and sanitation to poor people is not a highly profitable enterprise. And that isn't really the private sector's mandate. We don't ask the private sector to protect free speech or freedom of worship, or provide food stamps. Why would we leave it to them to provide water and sanitation for the poor? Governments have to take center stage, to the best of their capabilities.

Women and children often walk miles to collect water from public taps like this one in Uttarakhand, India.

Women and children often walk miles to collect water from public taps like this one in Uttarakhand, India.

Photo: Alasdair Cohen

How can academic research encourage governments to take action?

Governments need to acknowledge that basic water and sanitation services are part of the social contract they have with their citizens. Concerned citizens and scholars like myself can assess and reveal existing disparities and hold states accountable for fulfilling their social contract. Researchers can also help develop scalable, sustainable, technological solutions for expanding water access and think creatively about how to finance those projects.

Moving closer to home, can you discuss your recent research on arsenic in water in California?

Our recent paper was a collaboration with Energy and Resources graduate student Jenny Rempel, Alasdair Cohen (PhD 'Environmental Science, Policy, and Management; MPH '16 Public Health), and others. We analyzed 20 years of water quality data from Kern Valley State Prison and three nearby Central Valley communities where many groundwater aquifers contain unhealthy levels of naturally occurring arsenic. At all four locations, the study found instances of arsenic levels in the water supply above regulatory limits for months or even years at a time.

In addition to typical rural communities, we wanted to include a carceral community because water is a right for all humans, including humans in prisons. We also wanted to point out the flawed way in which the Safe Drinking Water Act monitors arsenic contamination. We monitor running annual averages of the concentrations of arsenic. Since arsenic varies in concentration, there could be many days where it goes above the maximum contaminant level, even if the annual average remains below the threshold. Human bodies are drinking every day, so it could be that the cumulative impact of arsenic contamination is being understated. We're strongly proposing additional monitoring measures to assess the number of days in which a system is out of compliance.

Michael Mascarenhas

Professor, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management

Michael Mascarenhas is an environmental sociologist who examines connections between racism and environmental injustices, particularly inequities in access to water for historically marginalized populations. He has written books on water resource access for First Nations people in Canada, environmental justice, and the privatization of humanitarian aid following disasters. His forthcoming book examines the water crises in the cities of Flint and Detroit, Michigan. Mascarenhas was an expert witness at the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on the Flint Water Crisis.

Image of Michael Mascarenhas

Photo: Mathew Burciaga

What led you to study water and inequity?

I first recognized the value of water as a child. As a new immigrant to Canada, I struggled to integrate. I found myself playing in our small town's rivers, listening to their flow, and traversing their banks. My uncle and I fished from the riverbanks, sharing stories as well as the fish we caught. To this day, those intimate experiences with water helped galvanize my appreciation for water's meaning and value.

What's so critical about water?

Water is the conduit for so many other things. Manufacturing, industry, development—these cannot succeed without water. Everything that makes the modern nation state possible is because of governments' or nation states' ability to control and manage other people's access to water—something that is often accomplished by force, coercion, or other means. But beyond the economics of it, the simple fact is we need water to survive. For example, if you do not have access to safe, potable water you cannot drink, cook, or bathe. Life without water becomes very precarious. Water insecurity can lead to housing insecurity. If your house is condemned because the water is contaminated or cut off, this is an environmental injustice that can create intergenerational harm. Families can be broken apart as children are moved to a place with safer water.

Your first book studied the racialized consequences of water policy in Ontario. Can you tell us about that?

Where the Waters Divide is about the privatization and liberalization of environmental policy around water and how those policies have made it more difficult for First Nations communities to find access. When I was writing that book in 2012, water was a real problem for First Nations in Canada. On any given day, there were about 95 boil water advisories across 633 First Nations communities. In contrast, there was one boil water advisory in the urban center in Vancouver during that time. I was part of a group of academics that, together with community groups, lobbied hard for regulations to guarantee safe drinking water on First Nations reserves, and there are now standards for drinking water quality. But, 20 years later, there are almost just as many boil water advisories reported in these communities. Despite more awareness and better water quality methods and policy, things are not changing enough.

Can you tell us about your forthcoming book on racial capitalism and water injustices in Flint and Detroit, Michigan?

Poison and Thirst provides an ethnographic analysis that weaves together the multiple strands of racial capitalism, including fiscal austerity, and Michigan's Emergency Management Law that resulted in profound environmental injustices in Flint and Detroit. The book spans beyond the realm of water to include white supremacist attacks on the public infrastructure of these predominantly Black cities, including housing, education, collective bargaining rights, and Black political power. So much has been written about the so-called Flint/Detroit Water Crisis. My goal with this book is to focus on the racist underpinnings of the seemingly mundane, taken-for-granted workings of fiscal austerity and to draw attention to the ways in which its implementation in Michigan has stripped away Black assets and democratic autonomy for the benefit of white political and economic elites.

How do the lessons learned in Michigan relate to other parts of the country or the world?

Advancing environmental and social justice depends largely on who has access to clean, safe, and affordable water. Beyond Michigan, there are so many places in this country facing water contamination and lead poisoning, including the cities of Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Jackson, Alabama, to name just a few. These are all majority Black and brown cities. In California, more than one million people don't have access to safe and affordable drinking water, and extreme drought conditions exacerbate the issue. If we don't think about policies in terms of their impact to marginalized communities, we're going to make things worse in these already segregated environments.

Mascarenhas and colleagues on a recent research trip in the Colombian Massif mountains, an area that includes the headwaters of the Magdelena and Cauca Rivers and is the source of 70 percent of Colombia's water.

Mascarenhas and colleagues on a recent research trip in the Colombian Massif mountains, an area that includes the headwaters of the Magdelena and Cauca Rivers and is the source of 70 percent of Colombia's water.

Photo: John Palechor

Your research involves collaborating with people, communities, and governments. How does that work?

Most of my work is ethnographic and collaborative with people and communities, combined with archival research. For Poison and Thirst, I learned from pastors, community leaders, artists, and organizations like We the People of Detroit and the People's Water Coalition. They are calling on governments, scientists, and academics to take responsibility and demonstrate accountability for environmental injustices and racism.

You've also written about humanitarian efforts to increase water access and other basic needs. Can you tell us about that?

In New Humanitarianism and the Crisis of Charity, I examined how corporations and philanthropists shape water charity efforts in Africa and Asia. In many places around the world, people don't get water from a tap powered by publicly funded infrastructure. In some places philanthropy plays a big role, and nonprofit organizations are almost governmental: they're providing things that states used to do, like military training, public education, and water infrastructure. The book analyzes the new conditions that influence humanitarian efforts like access to drinking water. Today, these efforts are primarily influenced by the good intentions of the charitable-industrial complex rather than the immediate needs of those without basic human rights.