President-Elect Trump and the Human Right to Water 

By Jeffrey H. Toney

Water, is taught by thirst
By Emily Dickinson

Water, is taught by thirst.
Land – by the Oceans passed.
Transport – by throe –
Peace – by its battles told –
Love, by Memorial Mold –
Birds, by the Snow.

Jeffrey H. ToneyEach day we slake our thirst with clean water flowing from faucets, as if breathing air. This is not true for more than one in ten of the world’s population, about 663 million people who lack access to safe drinking water. According to the World Bank, 99% of the U.S. population has access to improved water sources, such as piped household water, public taps, or wells compared to only 49% in Angola. The International Bottled Water Association reports that the average consumption of bottled water in the U.S. in 2015 was more than 36 gallons per person. What most Americans take for granted has been deemed to be a human right. Challenges remain even in the U.S., with the recent lead contamination of water sources in Flint, Michigan. The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation at its 80th Plenary Session last year. Such formal steps are a great start. Fulfilling the goals of this resolution will be the next challenge.

Now, we look to President-Elect Donald J. Trump to provide leadership on the human right to water and a myriad of environmental issues. The transition planning for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump Administration is headed by Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell has openly questioned the scientific consensus around global warming, saying it’s a pretext for expanding government. This would indicate Trump’s administration will take a step backward on global warming issues, however there is reason to have confidence that Trump will support efforts to expand access to clean water. Trump has stated that he plans to refocus the EPA on clean air and safe drinking water. Trump also responded during his presidential campaign to questions put forth by a coalition that included Sigma Xi. The coalition, led by the nonprofit group, was calling for the presidential candidates to address science and technology issues. In his response, Trump said giving all Americans access to clean water would be one of his top priorities. He also said that investment is needed in fresh water infrastructure. If investments allow technologies to be developed in the U.S. that improve access to clean water, those technologies could be used elsewhere in the world, potentially having global implications for the human right to safe drinking water.

What can scientists and engineers do to help make the human right to water a reality? As a Sigma Xi member, you can join me in efforts organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Coalition. Sigma Xi is one of the scientific associations and professional societies, totaling more than 0.5 million members, belonging to the coalition. Its upcoming open meeting to be held in Washington, D.C., on January 26–27, 2017, will focus on the human right to water that will include presentations and discussions of project proposals. Contributing to such projects is an opportunity to collaborate across a wide range of disciplines, including human rights law, public policy, and advocacy, and can enhance your research and scholarship, as well as broaden awareness of populations of greatest need.

Increasing access to clean drinking water can save lives. One example of innovative solutions for reducing water-borne illness is the LifeStraw® introduced in 2005 that includes a 0.02 micron pore size filter, recognized by the Award for World Changing Ideas from Saatchi & Saatchi. Use of the LifeStraw® has significantly reduced the spread of Dracunculiasis, known as Guinea worm disease, and has contributed to an overall reduction of 99% of the illness since 1989. I hope that this will be one example of many discussed during the upcoming meeting to illustrate how creative solutions can enhance public health towards fulfilling the human right to water.

Jeffrey H. Toney, pictured above, is a representative of Sigma Xi on the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition. He is also the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. More about the coalition may be found at