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Testimonies to the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism Expose Water Inequality and Demand Immediate Action to Address Infrastructure and Discriminatory Funding Practices

March 22, 2024 – In recognition of World Water Day 2024, a coalition of activists, community members and supporting advocacy organizations based in the United States South, including the Concerned Residents of Brunswick County North Carolina, People’s Advocacy Institute (PAI), the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity (IAJE), EarthRights International, and the Center for Constitutional Rights united to present their testimonies to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Ashwini K.P., on March 18, 2024.

Their testimonies detailed the dire water quality and accessibility crisis, which disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. The enduring and deeply historically rooted levels of inequality continue to be exacerbated by discriminatory funding and policies. Community members also highlighted the impacts of inadequate infrastructure, discriminatory funding practices, and governance regimes that have failed to realize universal delivery of the basic right to water in the Southern United States.

“We’ve heard folks talk about the intersection of infrastructure, racism, and water access. The context is that water is a human right and necessary for life. In every case, when the government is supposed to make sure we have safe water and access to water and sewage support, we often find that communities of color are paying more and getting less.”

-Makani Themba, resident of Jackson, Mississippi

Presentations shared examples of systemic neglect and racial discrimination. In Brunswick County, North Carolina, Black residents faced systematic denial of access to county water services. The county has ignored requests to apply for federal and state funding opportunities that would assist in water availability for Black residents who rely on well water tainted with foul odor and rust.

Moreover, the dire water crises in Jackson, Mississippi, laid bare the repercussions of years of infrastructure neglect and underinvestment. The city’s precarious water system crumbled during a winter storm in 2021, depriving residents of essential services for weeks. Amidst this crisis, civil society organizations – including many of the community representatives who testified before the special rapporteur – led emergency relief efforts. Yet, the state’s response involved blocking federal funding offered to the city and prioritizing deploying U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials at water collection sites to intimidate and discourage immigrant residents rather than ensure universal access to water for all.

Activists emphasized the broader issue of environmental racism and neglect by detailing the failure of governmental and institutional support in providing essential water and sewage infrastructure, acknowledging the urgent need for basic infrastructure investment in chronically underserved rural communities in Alabama.

This collective testimony aims not only to bring international attention to the crisis but also to press for immediate, tangible changes in policy and funding to ensure equitable access to clean water and sanitation services. The testimonies serve as a critical step in a larger movement to hold governments accountable and to assert water as a fundamental human right, essential for life and dignity.

Learn more about the issue here.

Lauren Barnes
Media Consultant, EarthRights International