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Is Safe Water a Human Right? Securing Water for Communities Around the World

Waterways, such as this river in West Virginia, are compromised by fracking and coal mining in the region. | Still from "Global Mosaic"
Waterways, such as this river in West Virginia, are compromised by fracking and coal mining in the region.
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How clean is the water you’re drinking? In many places around the world, safe drinking water is still not a basic commodity, even though it is essential to sustaining communities, improving public health and combating the spread of bacteria and diseases

Access to clean water for drinking and household use remains a challenge in places as far apart as Mumbai, India and rural communities in West Virginia. Industrial processes, chemical factories, mountaintop mining and hydraulic fracturing contribute to poisoning water supplies, damaging landscapes, threatening wildlife and putting lower income communities at risk. Private ownership of municipal water systems also contributes to water insecurity around the world, as these large corporations can focus more on growing their profit than on securing water access for every resident. 

In the “Global Mosaic” episode “Water For Life,” Indian filmmaker Zulekha Sayyed and West Virginia photojournalist Paul Corbit Brown dive deep to answer the question, “Is clean water a basic human right?” and seek solutions to secure safe water for everyone in their communities.

Mumbai, India

In the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai (population 20 million), Sayyed has been reporting on water issues since she was a teenager, when she first contributed stories to India’s innovative Video Volunteers reporting network. Millions of Mumbai’s residents lack access to clean running water in their homes. They have to wait in line at public taps or carry containers to water trucks; women and children can spend hours each day just fetching water.

Although bottled water is available, if one doesn’t have a water connection at home “it’s very difficult to buy water,” Sayyed said in the documentary. “When they are working minimum wage, much of their income can go to buying water.”

Women in Mumbai line up to present local government officials examples of bad drinking water from their homes. | Still from "Global Mosaic"
Women in Mumbai line up to present local government officials examples of bad drinking water from their homes. | Still from "Global Mosaic"

According to WaterAid, in India about 166 children under the age of 5 die every day from diarrhea, due to India’s poor water and sanitation systems. Some families use well water to drink, cook and bathe, but that water is not sanitized. “Children get sick after drinking this water,” one Mumbai resident explained to Sayyed. “The water often gets mixed with sewer water and is unhygenic.” Another mother said, “The water we drink is so filthy, even an animal won’t drink it.”

India’s water crisis is perpetuated by the privatization of water, coupled with government inaction. Large companies own many of India’s water delivery systems and can raise prices for profit. Meanwhile, the lower income urban neighborhoods and rural villages where access to clean water is limited and water prices are high, are often neglected by the government.

“Mumbai has ample water, double than the required water supply. But there isn’t a political will to supply water to all,” said Sitaram Shelar, one of the founders of Pani Haq Samiti (Water Rights Committee). “The municipal government decided to give water to everyone, but there was a hitch. They wouldn’t give water to people living in informal dwellings,” Shelar said, referring to makeshift homes in India’s low-income neighborhoods.

Sitaram Shelar, founder of Pani Haq Samiti (Water Rights Committee) | Still from "Global Mosaic"
Sitaram Shelar, founder of Pani Haq Samiti (Water Rights Committee) | Still from "Global Mosaic"

Lack of access to safe tap water has even deadlier effects now as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that one of the best ways to beat the virus is to practice frequent hand washing. But living in close quarters during the pandemic and without clean running water, India’s infection rate continues to rise.

Pani Haq Samiti’s right to water campaign is making strides toward securing safer water for Mumbai’s residents by raising awareness of the issue and local organizing. Their volunteers go house-to-house to help residents fill out online forms requesting the installation of water taps. Over the past three years, they submitted applications for 5,500 families and so far about 10% have received running water connections into their homes. Now the organization is working to secure safe water for millions of Mumbai’s slum residents who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

West Virginia, United States

Resident of Charleston, WV shows the water from her tap after 2014 chemical spill. | Still from "Global Mosaic"
Resident of Charleston, WV shows the water from her tap after 2014 chemical spill. | Still from "Global Mosaic"

Contaminated water is also a major issue in West Virginia, with many counties deemed among the “worst in the nation” in 2019 for various drinking water violations. A state known for its mountainous hilltops, crisp fresh air and stunning, natural views, has a long, complicated history with coal-mining, and in recent years with fracking for natural gas. Many of the municipal water systems are owned by large global corporations. Although industries bring the state revenue and provide jobs to many West Virginia residents, they have also left some communities with toxic, polluted groundwater.

In 2014, a chemical spill affected 300,000 residents in Charleston, West Virginia after 10,000 gallons of chemicals used in the coal-mining process were spilled into the capital city’s municipal water source. The spill left citizens with water that was too toxic to clean, bathe, drink and cook with for many days. Toxified water has been a problem for nearly four decades, particularly in West Virginia’s “coal country," where some local journalists and citizens believe that speaking out against industry puts them at risk.

“We're dying here,” West Virginian native Jesse Johnson told Paul Corbit Brown in “Water for Life.” “We're being poisoned to death by our own industries that employ us, and the message is not getting out to the rest of the nation. It’s not even getting out to us.”

Thomas Linzey, Senior Legal Council for the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights explains. “Whether you're talking about mountaintop removal in West Virginia, whether you're talking about this frack water that's being pumped out of the holes by the natural gas corporations, you're talking about stuff that ruins the environment forever. You're talking about aquifers that are polluted, which you cannot fix.”

Since 2016, both state and federal regulations protecting rivers, streams and wetlands have been relaxed, exposing West Virginia and other states to significantly greater environmental hazards through the practices of extractive industries. Politicians who fight for clean water face industry opposition and even retaliation.

“Until we get rid of big money in politics, we're not going to change anything,” stated Mike Manypenny, organic farmer and former West Virginia state delegate. “The Coal Association offered me a free pass if I would withdraw all the legislation that would hold them accountable for polluting our streams and rivers. And they said, if you take this legislation off the table, we'll make sure you'll never have to worry about getting reelected again.” 

However, individuals and states are fighting back. The organization Keeper of the Mountains remains dedicated to educating young people around the nation about the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal and the readily clean alternative of sustainable energy practices. The organization’s director, photojournalist Paul Corbit Brown, looks to the next generation with hope.

Legislating Safe Water as a Basic Human Right: Ways to take Action

Canadian author Maude Barlow, who chairs Food and Water Watch, has been on the front lines of establishing water as a basic human right. “What I call for now is a new water ethic, where we put water in the center of our lives,” Barlow said in the documentary “Water For Life.” “If policies are hurting water in a world running out of water, where the demand is going straight up and the supply is going straight down, you better reevaluate.” 

Many municipalities around the world are taking back their public water services from private companies that were contracted to manage them — a process known as "remunicipalization." In France, Spain and Germany, more than 160 municipal water systems have been returned to local control.

Here is a roundup of resources and organizations helping communities secure access to safe water around the world.

Top image: Waterways, such as this river in West Virginia, are compromised by fracking and coal mining in the region. | Still from "Global Mosaic"

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