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The Human Right to Water

Stanford engineer discusses water equity in California and the U.S.
May 12, 2023


If safe water is a human right, why does it remain out of reach for so many? A Stanford-led project, supported by the Sustainability Accelerator of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, is focused on the broad goal of achieving the human right to water (HR2W) in California. Cindy Weng, a PhD candidate in environmental engineering, is leading the project’s data analytics for assessing equity in urban water access during droughts. Recently, she discussed the project, water equity issues, and potential solutions for California and the rest of the country.


What drew you to the human right to water project?

I was drawn to this project because of my experience growing up in Oakland and its culture of social justice. Since high school, I’ve been passionate about understanding the intersection of engineering and society, but most of my academic career has focused on technical issues, such as developing catalysts and nanomaterials. For a long time, I’ve wondered how I could combine my interests in water and equity. Two years ago, I worked on a small policy project to propose legislation to support the HR2W legislation in California. While working on the project, I was fascinated by how complex water issues are and the institutional barriers that low-resource communities face. So, when I found out about the HR2W project with the team at Stanford, I felt like it would be a great fit.

What might the average person be surprised to learn about access to water in California and the U.S.?

Over 1 million California residents lack access to safe drinking water. One out of 8 households in the state have water bill debt, adding up to about one billion dollars in debt. Projections show that U.S. water debt will only worsen in the next five years, with the number of households that find their water bill to be unaffordable tripling. Furthermore, federal funding for water systems has fallen 77% in the last 40 years. Water access challenges disproportionally impact historically marginalized communities the greatest, with a 2021 DigDeep study showing that “race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access.”

What are some promising technological solutions for these challenges?

I would be interested to see more experts and academics study the idea of making water decentralized and interdependent, similar to how we think about microgrids in the renewable energy sector. I imagine us taking the learnings from decentralization of the energy sector via solar and doing the same with water in California. What would it look like if we broadly implemented potable reuse and reduced the scale such that treatment was occurring closer to point of use (i.e. building scale)? In a decentralized system, water could be treated more specifically to the use purpose, and we would use less energy to transport the water.

What does the policy landscape look like for ensuring the human right to water in California?

More than a decade after a California assembly bill (AB 685) enshrined the human right to water, safe, affordable, and accessible water still isn’t a reality for many Californians. This is a result of financial and policy challenges, including Proposition 218, passed in 1996, which makes investment in non-traditional water sources difficult by stipulating that the cost of water can’t exceed how much it costs to provide the water. A state senate bill (SB 222) tried to make water more affordable for consumers, but ultimately was vetoed due to lack of funding. A bill currently under debate, SB 66, sets aside funding to help ensure affordable drinking water, among other goals. I’m hopeful.

What gives you hope about water access / justice in California?

We have come a long way in terms of water infrastructure and access. Every year, California passes policies that outpace the nation’s conversations surrounding water, environmental justice, and social issues. Our leaders are dedicating significant time to resolving water challenges. The fact that we are being funded to work on water access and equity in California indicates a prioritization of historically marginalized communities. It’s an exciting time to be in California, at the forefront of these issues that I care about deeply.


Contact Information

Rob Jordan
Associate Editor, Environment and Sustainability, Woods Institute