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Time for California to Deliver on the Human Right to Water

California has an opportunity to be a clean drinking water leader, as it is a leader on the climate front, says Leo Heller, the United Nations special rapporteur, on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Written by Leo Heller Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
(From left) Peter Aranzazu and Benny Zurita install piping from the main pipeline to residential homes in East Porterville, California, on February 21, 2017. Residents of East Porterville, a city in Tulare County, have lived with water shortages for years, due to dried-up wells.Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

Six years after California recognized the human right to water in state law, more than 1 million Californians still lack access to safe drinking water, and in many ways the scope of the challenge has revealed itself to be even more pervasive and endemic than initially realized. Lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation impacts rural well-users, city residents, schoolchildren, mobile home communities and churches across the state.

When my predecessor, Catarina de Albuquerque, visited California, what she found shocked her. Drinking water conditions were akin to those typically seen in a developing country: families without an acceptable level of safe drinking water or sanitation; exposed pipes running through irrigation ditches; crumbling or nonexistent infrastructure.

California is known around the world for its thriving technology sector and for its movement to fight climate change and protect the environment. This is a different side of California, and it is deeply troubling.

How much longer must families, children, wait, while their dignity is compromised by the inaction of California’s leaders? Should we expect to return in another six years and again find that so many go without in the midst of one of the wealthiest places on earth?

But just as we have seen California demonstrate leadership to the world in combating climate change, we see cause for hope that the state will solve this public health crisis.

The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund is based on a simple premise that all must join hands together to ensure universal access to this fundamental right. Many hands make burdens light. Those who can afford it pay more to maintain the system and to support those who cannot afford it. The technical term for this is “cross-subsidy” and it is encouraged by the international human rights framework. My understanding is that households will contribute less than a dollar a month, with low-income Californians exempted. Revenues raised will provide sustainable funding for safe drinking water and sanitation to the communities that need help.

The California State Legislature should not miss the opportunity to be a champion of the human rights to water and sanitation when a proposal with an unprecedented array of support lies before them.

I support the swift passage of the proposed Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The rest of the world is watching.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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