Systemic Discrimination

Even in the United States, where discrimination is a violation of civil rights, legacies of discrimination make lower-income people and people of color particularly vulnerable to systemic human rights abuses.

In areas that have experienced slavery, apartheid, and legal caste systems, like the United States and South Africa, historically segregated communities of color were often excluded from cities’ infrastructural development plans. People who live in those communities today still suffer from a lack of water security.

From 1956 to 2008, the predominantly African American community of Coal Run, in Zanesville, Ohio, was denied access to municipal water lines that provided water to adjacent white neighborhoods and in some cases literally bypassed black homes to carry water to white people in the county. In 2002, residents filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which in 2004 concluded that the city and county had “failed to provide the complainants with access to public water service because of their race.”[59] In 2008, a jury in U.S. District Court awarded the residents of Coal Run $10.8 million in damages, and water is now, at last, connected to the neighborhood.[60]

While this is a particularly clear civil rights violation, similar patterns of segregation have created human rights abuses across the country. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, where UUSC partner the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water works, communities of color historically were segregated and relegated to the low-lying lands, alongside industrial and waste-management facilities, where they now face threats from both rising sea levels and pollution.[61]

Trailer for Thirsty for Justice, a video produced by the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, a UUSC partner

Partner Spotlight: MGA

UUSC partner Massachusetts Global Action works to fill gaps in data on failures related to the human right to water in the United States. In 2010, the organization published The Color of Water, a landmark study that documented discriminatory water shutoff policies in the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC).

MGA’s findings: water shutoffs disproportionally affected low-income people and communities of color.

Most strikingly, MGA found that there was not a significant relationship between the rate of threatened water shutoffs and “average income” by itself — there was, however, a significant relationship between threatened water shutoffs and the percentage of people of color who lived in the area. MGA’s analysis shows that the percentage of people of color in an area had a significant relationship with the rate of shutoffs (with a value of .63), much higher than income alone (only .13). In other words, those who live in communities of color face disproportionate threats to their access to water.[62]

MGA works with City Council members to advance the human right to water, engages community groups and interfaith groups to inform affected people about their rights, and trains activists in the Boston Human Rights City Coalition to engage the city and utility. MGA and other community groups convened meetings in Dorchester and Roxbury, areas of Boston particularly affected by threatened shutoffs and rising water prices, where residents shared stories of hardship. Two teenaged boys reported that their family struggled to limit water usage, while their monthly bills swelled to an unaffordable $200/month, and noted the increased stress the water bills had for their father. Retirees who lived on fixed incomes explained the hardship they faced as BWSC implemented planned rate increases that far outstripped their ability to pay rising bills (they also outstripped annual increases in the Consumer Price Index).[64] MGA and UUSC are working on a program called Tap Justice with interfaith organizations working to protect children under 6 and seniors over 65 from arbitrary water shutoffs.

MGA’s Color of Water research has gained important ground in dialogues with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission over the last year.

Since MGA shared their findings, BWSC has reported that it will implement a “right to service” policy that limits shutoffs for households in which all residents are over 65 or where water shutoffs would cause significant medical hardship.

BWSC has committed to share data on shutoffs, meet with affected communities, and discuss affordability.

Still, implementing meaningful human-right-to-water policies remains a challenge. MGA will continue its research, but Suren Moodlier, MGA coordinator, hopes also to shift the organization’s approach toward loftier engagement between affected communities and high-level policymakers: “We want to . . . demand that Boston should become a model for the rest of the country in terms of the human right to water,” especially as an example of ways to involve affected communities in discussions about issues such as climate change.[65]

NEXT: Water Resources and Climate Impact


[59] James Dao, “Ohio Town’s Water at Last Runs Past a Color Line,” New York Times, February 17, 2004.

[60] Reed N. Colfax, “Kennedy v. City of Zanesville,” Human Rights 36.4 (Fall 2009), 18–19.

[61] Colin Bailey, interview by author, December 8, 2014.

[62] Massachusetts Global Action, The Color of Water: A Report on the Human Right to Water in the City of Boston, (2012), 4–5.

[63] Massachusetts Global Action, The Color of Water: Report on the Human Right to Water in the City of Boston (Massachusetts Global Action, 2014 [update]), 6.

[64] Massachusetts Global Action, Sharp Inequalities in Water Security Across the City of Boston; People of Color Communities Most Impacted, Pt. 1[ n.d.]. http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/USA/INT_CERD_NGO_USA_17798_E.pdf.

[65] Suren Moodlier, interview by author, December 12, 2014.

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