Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Honoring a Human Rights and Environmental Justice Warrior

by JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Columbia Law School, contributing editor

 Passionate. Pragmatic. Collaborative. Boundary Pushing. Tireless. These are some of the words that come to mind when I think of Catherine Coleman Flowers.  Yesterday, Catherine was named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow (often called a “genius” grant) - a well-deserved honor that we are thrilled to celebrate on the Human Rights at Home Blog.  

 I was privileged to meet Catherine in 2017, when she agreed to speak at a convening on using human rights standards and strategies to advance water and sanitation in the United States.  That was the same year that the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the United States a D+ for its failing and inadequate wastewater infrastructure.

 By 2017, Catherine was already working to elevate conversations on the human rights to water and sanitation, including by leveraging hearings at the Inter-American Commission, as part of the National Right to Water Coalition.  Catherine saw the human rights framework as a powerful tool to highlight and address the reality that in rural areas across the United States, communities were being systematically denied basic services, impacting mental and physical health and well-being. Misplaced penalties such as fines, or in some cases arrests, had long perpetuated a cycle of criminalization and poverty.  And the communities most in need were consistently unable to access the limited government funds available for sanitation and wastewater.  The persistent lack of adequate and affordable sanitation in rural communities result from past and present disinvestment, neglect, and in some cases, overt discrimination.  At the same time, climate change was devastating communities that lack sufficient and resilient infrastructure, including Lowndes County, Alabama, where Catherine’s work originated.  

 While Lowndes County is emblematic of the sanitation crisis, surfacing the national scope of the problem, and crafting solutions that prioritize the experience of the most impacted communities have been part of the ongoing effort to shape sustainable solutions, grounded in human rights principles.  To increase attention to the problem, and inform solutions, Catherine has engaged with Congress, worked with UN Special Rapporteurs, and raised sanitation and wastewater during the UPR process.  

 Catherine has taken an interdisciplinary and approach to her work on sanitation.  A partnership with Dr. Peter J. Hotez unearthed the connections between sewage and hookworm in Lowndes County, and led to a 2017 co-authored peer-reviewed study.  

 I have been personally privileged to work with Catherine to document the scope and breadth of the sanitation problem in the United States, and to connect this work to ongoing struggles for racial justice and basic rights in the United States, building on initial scholarship by Catherine and another long-standing collaborator and water and sanitation expert, Inga Winkler.  This scholarship complements ongoing advocacy to improve protection of economic and social rights in the United States, challenge discriminatory enforcement of wastewater violations, and fight for climate justice.  Serving on the Biden Sanders Unity Taskforce on Climate Change in 2020 is just one of the ways that Catherine’s knowledge and experience is shaping sustainable solutions today.  The MacArthur Fellowship recognizes Catherine’s innovative approach and her dedication, and will undoubtedly contribute to a broader rethinking of wastewater challenges in the context of human rights and environmental justice.

 More on Catherine from the MacArthur Foundation is here:

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