Alabama Rural Poverty and the Basic Human Right to Water and Sanitation is Subject of United Nations Inquiry


EJI Rural Development Manager Catherine Coleman-Flowers testified before the United Nations Independent Expert on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation on February 23, 2011, about residents of Lowndes County, Alabama, who have been threatened with arrest for failing to install expensive septic systems that they cannot afford.

The thirteen counties – Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Perry, Pickens, Sumter, Wilcox – that make up Alabama’s Black Belt (named for its dark, fertile soil) are some of the poorest counties in the United States. Even before the recession, the median household income in Lowndes County was only $23,050, and 26% of families (31% of the population) were living below the poverty line.

Many residents in Lowndes and surrounding counties with nonabsorbent clay soil have had their septic systems stop working, causing sewage to pour out on the ground in their yards. New systems cost $6,000 to as much as $30,000 each.

A number of poor families lack needed septic systems for their homes. The Alabama Department of Public Health estimates that 40 to 90% of households in Lowndes County have inadequate or no septic systems. Beginning in 1999, more than a dozen people have been arrested for not being able to buy expensive new systems.

Ms. Flowers testified about a 27-year-old woman with an autistic child, living on $12,000 a year of disability income, whom law enforcement officials threatened to arrest and separate from her child because she has not been able to install a septic system that would have cost half her annual income.

United Nations Independent Expert on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque heard Ms. Coleman’s testimony while in the United States for two-week mission. The Independent Expert examines human rights obligations related to providing residents access to safe drinking water and sanitation, which is central to living a life in dignity and upholding human rights.

EJI has been working to obtain the resources necessary to assist residents to install new septic tanks and to shield poor people from criminal prosecution based on their inability to purchase new tanks.