When it was announced that the government of Fiji would chair this year’s climate talks in Bonn, Germany, expectations were high. As a small island, Fiji sees climate change as an existential threat.

Indigenous peoples demand their rights at climate negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco, November 2016,

© 2016 Katharina Rall / Human Rights Watch

The talks wrapped up on Friday, and during the last two weeks, advocates for gender equality and indigenous peoples made their voices heard and won hard-fought battles to better respect their rights. Notably, governments agreed to create a platform to promote the participation of indigenous peoples in United Nations climate responses, and adopted a Gender Action Plan that aims to better integrate gender equality in climate change policies.

There was also increased attention given to environmental rights defenders and indigenous people who have been killed, attacked, and threatened for their activism. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that governments often fail to conduct serious and timely investigations.

Just when the talks were nearing their end, human rights were pushed to the fore when Fijian prime minister and president of the climate talks, Frank Bainimarama, convened a high-level event about the importance of rights in climate negotiations. Why was this such a big deal? Because never before has any government presiding over the talks hosted an official event on human rights.

Bainimarama has also long been among those who have been silent on human rights issues. But on Thursday, he announced that integrating human rights in the implementation of the Paris Agreement was an important element of Fiji’s presidency, which will continue through the coming year. Costa Rica’s environment minister, Edgar Gutiérrez-Espelata, also proposed concrete ways to integrate rights into the current negotiations about the so-called Paris Rulebook. For example, governments could reference human rights obligations in climate change action plans and climate negotiators could agree to build capacity among states on promoting human rights in climate action.

Of course, such commitments are worth little unless governments are willing to turn rhetoric into reality. If they are serious about fighting climate change, governments should also do more to integrate the protection of human rights in climate policies, while defending the rights of people working to protect the environment.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River following one of the worst coal-ash spills in US history into the river in Danville, Virginia, February 5, 2014.

© 2014 AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File

A proposed new rule by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could mean that coal ash pollution – a byproduct of burning coal for electricity – won’t be properly cleaned up and that even if it is, the public will foot the bill.

The EPA is required to assess whether industries need to set aside money for potential pollution cleanup. It is now proposing not to impose financial requirements on the electrical power industry, despite the enormous cost of cleaning up decades of coal ash pollution.

Human Rights Watch submitted a comment today opposing the agency’s proposal.

Coal ash, which contains a slew of toxic metals such as arsenic and lead, is one of the largest industrial waste streams in the United States. Prior to an EPA regulation in 2015, most US states let utilities dispose of coal ash in unlined pits that allow these metals to leach into groundwater. The pollution poses a significant health risk for the 115 million US citizens who rely on groundwater sources for drinking.

The extent of coal ash contamination was first revealed in March 2018, when a new federal regulation required power plants to test groundwater near coal ash ponds and publish the results. According to the advocacy group EarthJustice, 91 percent of the units reporting data had found groundwater contamination, many at levels far exceeding federal safety standards.

US law requires the EPA to assess the chance of an industry’s cleanup costs being passed onto the public, and if this seems likely, to require companies to set aside cleanup funds. But the agency’s assessment of the electric industry significantly underestimated the financial risks.

First, it only looked at cases where pollution was generated after 2015, when coal ash sites became regulated. For example, North Carolina ordered Duke Energy to clean up all its coal ash pollution in the state after 39,000 tons of toxic waste from coal ash contaminated the Dan River in 2014. The company estimates this will cost US$10 billion, and is now seeking to pass some of the cost on to consumers by hiking electricity prices.

Second, it didn’t adequately consider the financial precariousness of the coal-powered industry, as competition from natural gas has led dozens of these plants to recently shut down, with many more slated for closure.

If utilities that rely on coal aren’t forced to set aside funds, there are serious concerns they won’t have the resources to pay clean-up costs. The public will then be on the hook for the bill, or face continued health risks from the pollution.

Either way, the public loses.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


Lebanon: Burning Trash Poses Serious Health Risk

Lebanese municipalities are endangering the health of residents by openly burning waste despite the passage of a national solid waste management law banning the practice. 

(Beirut) – Lebanon’s ministerial committee tasked with solving Lebanon’s waste management emergency has yet to act despite a four-month trash crisis in the north, Human Rights Watch said today. The crisis has resulted in trash in the streets and harmful open burning of waste.

Absent action by the central government, the Environment Minister has proposed a short-term solution that has triggered a public outcry. The ministerial committee should urgently study the roadmap submitted by the Environment Ministry on June 3, 2019 aimed at implementing the new solid waste management law and submit a final draft to the cabinet that would protect everyone’s right to health.

“The government has had four months to find a solution to the north’s trash crisis, but it is still dragging its feet and relying on temporary half-measures,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Residents in the north are paying the price for the government’s continued failure to manage the country’s waste.”

The Aadoueh dumpsite, an unregulated open dump that had been used by the northern districts of Minieh-Dinnieh, Koura, Zgharta, and Bcharre for 17 years, was closed by the owner on April 5.

Local media have reported that some residents in the north are burning the waste that has piled up on the sidewalks and in some instances blocked streets, even though the practice is illegal, endangering the health of nearly 330,000 people. Media reported that an elderly woman fainted from smoke inhalation from waste burning in the town of Sir al-Dinnieh.

A 2017 Human Rights Watch investigation found that burning waste was risking the health of nearby residents. Residents reported health problems including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coughing, throat irritation, skin conditions, and asthma. Air pollution from open waste burning has been linked to heart disease and emphysema, and can expose people to carcinogenic compounds.

In the absence of action by the central government, on August 6, the Environment Minister announced that trash would be removed from the streets and stored in a “parking” site until a location for a new sanitary landfill could be agreed upon.

The Environment Minister did not announce the proposed site, but Tony Frangieh, a parliament member form Zgharta, told local media that it was in the village of Terbol in the Minieh-Dinnieh district. Local residents objected to this plan, saying that it would be an “environmental catastrophe” and that “they will not accept the establishment of a landfill at the expense of the health of residents.”

An Environment Ministry official has described the roadmap as a step toward carrying out the nationwide strategy that the ministry was tasked with establishing under Law 80/2018 on integrated solid waste management, passed on September 24, 2018. Although the strategy should have been adopted in March, the ministry official said it is still being finalized in line with the comments from civic groups and other stakeholders and will be sent to the cabinet before the end of the month.

The roadmap recommends expanding the Borj Hammoud landfill in Beirut and includes a map of 24 other proposed sites for new sanitary landfills across the country, but not all of these have had the required Environmental Impact Assessment. In at least one case, an assessment was conducted more than a decade ago. Under Lebanese law, the assessment is valid for two years, after which the Environment Ministry must consider whether any changes on the ground call for a new assessment.

The cabinet should not agree to landfill expansions or new landfills without first ensuring that adequate environmental assessments have been carried out, Human Rights Watch said.

The roadmap also includes a draft law outlining the fees and taxes that the central government and municipalities can impose to cover their waste management costs. Without such a law, neither the ministry nor the municipalities will be able to fulfill their responsibilities under the law and the strategy, Human Rights Watch said.

Outside Beirut and Mount Lebanon, municipalities are responsible for collection, treatment, and disposal of their waste. Municipalities are supposed to receive part of their funding from an Independent Municipal Fund financed with taxes collected by the central government. However, disbursements have been irregular and several years behind schedule. The Aadoueh dumpsite’s owner told Human Rights Watch that the main reason for his decision to close the dumpsite was the municipalities’ failure to pay their dues.

Residents across Lebanon have told Human Rights Watch they have lost faith in the government’s ability to manage waste in a way that is not detrimental to their health and environment. Since the 2015 trash crisis, during which garbage built up on the streets of Beirut, the government has been relying on stopgap measures and temporary fixes that do not solve Lebanon’s underlying waste management problems. About 85 percent of Lebanon’s waste goes to open dumps or landfills. But American University of Beirut researchers have found that only 10 to 12 percent of the waste cannot be composted or recycled.

As Beirut’s landfills also rapidly reach capacity, the ministerial committee should urgently review the roadmap and the strategy and adopt an integrated approach to solid waste management that decreases Lebanon's reliance on landfills and gives municipalities the resources they need to fulfill their duties. Any plan presented to the cabinet should comply with environmental and public health best practices as well as Lebanese and international law. The plan should ensure that the authorities respect everyone’s right to health and to live in a healthy environment, and that everyone is fully informed of threats to their health in their area.

Once the ministerial committee submits the roadmap and strategy to the cabinet, the cabinet should urgently meet and take the necessary decisions. The cabinet has not met in over a month due to political deadlock resulting from clashes between two parties. The cabinet should not allow a political dispute to hijack its operation, endangering the health of millions of residents, Human Rights Watch said.

The Environment Ministry should also urgently begin monitoring compliance with the solid waste management law and ensure that violators are appropriately penalized and cases are referred to the relevant environmental public prosecutors.

“Lebanon’s residents have a right to a healthy environment, yet the Lebanese government has continuously failed to uphold its international obligations to protect that right,” Fakih said. “If Lebanon is to avoid another trash catastrophe in the next few weeks, the ministerial committee needs to act quickly.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A campaign poster showing environmental activists, Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, who have been in detention for six months. 

© 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign
(Beirut) – At least two environmental experts detained in Iran since January 2018 have likely embarked on a hunger strike to protest their continued detention after many months in legal limbo, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should ensure their adequate access to medical treatment. 

They are among eight environmentalist experts detained for over 18 months without being provided with the evidence concerning their alleged crimes and with serious due process violations. Given those circumstances, the authorities should immediately release all eight.  

“Members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation have languished behind bars for over 550 days while Iranian authorities have blatantly failed to provide a shred of evidence about their alleged crime,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should take the long overdue step of releasing these defenders of Iran’s endangered wildlife and end this injustice against them.”

A source who requested anonymity informed Human Rights Watch that Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani intended to begin a hunger strike on August 3, 2019. Two other environmentalists arrested with them have most likely begun a hunger strike as well, the source said. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any contacts the detainees have had with family members since August 3.

Authorities from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization detained the two, along with Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, Amirhossein Khaleghi, and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh on accusations of espionage. All are members of a local environmental group, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF). The authorities have provided no evidence to them or their lawyers concerning their alleged crimes.

The environmentalists on hunger strike are demanding that authorities end their legal limbo and either release them on bail until a verdict is issued against them or transfer them to the public ward of Evin prison, the source said. They are in ward 2-Alef of Evin prison, which is under the supervision. of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.

Their trial in Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court was halted before the Iranian new year in March, then resumed at the beginning of August. The court reportedly did not allow lawyers to review the evidence before the trial opened on January 30. Judge Abdolghassem Salavati of Branch 15 also restricted the defendants’ choices of lawyers to a list approved by the judiciary. Bayani had interrupted an earlier trial session, in February, saying that the defendants had been under psychosocial tortured and were coerced into making false confessions.  

On February 10, 2018, a few weeks after their arrests, family members of Kavous Seyed Emami, a Canadian-Iranian professor and environmentalist arrested with the other members of the group, reported that he had died in detention under suspicious circumstances. Iranian authorities claimed that he committed suicide, but they have not conducted an impartial investigation into his death and have placed a travel ban on his wife, Maryam Mombeini.

Several senior Iranian government officials have said that they did not find any evidence to suggest that the detained activists are spies. On May 22, 2018, ISNA News Agency reported that Issa Kalantari, the head of Iran’s Environmental Institution, said during a speech at a bio-diversity conference that the government had formed a committee consisting of the ministers of intelligence, interior, and justice and the president’s legal deputy, and that they had concluded there was no evidence to suggest those detained are spies. Kalantari added that the committee said the environmentalists should be released.

On February 3, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of parliament from Tehran, tweeted that according to the information he has received, the National Security Council headed by President Hassan Rouhani also did not deem their activities of the detained conservation activists to be spying.

On October 24, 2018, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, the Tehran prosecutor, said that the prosecutor’s office had elevated the charges against four of the detainees to “sowing corruption on earth,” which includes the risk of the death penalty. The prosecutor claimed that the activists were “seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of environmental projects and obtaining military information from them.” Bayani, Tahbaz, Jokar, and Ghadirian are believed to face the capital charges. On January 30, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported that three others are charged with spying and one person is charged with assembly and collusion against national security.

Article 48 of Iran’s 2014 criminal procedure law says that detainees charged with various offenses, including national or international security crimes, political, and media crimes, must select their lawyer from a pre-approved pool selected by Iran’s judiciary during the investigation. The list published in June 2018 of lawyers allowed to represent people charged with national security crimes in Tehran province did not include any women or human rights lawyers.

Iran has a dismal record of providing necessary medical care and respecting the due process of detainees, Human Rights Watch said. In one of the latest incidents, on December 13, authorities informed the family of Vahid Sayadi Nasiri, a dissident, that he died in prison. His family said he had been he was serving time for charges that included “insulting the supreme leader” and that he had gone on a hunger strike to protest his condition.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Aratiri, a 9-year-old boy, lives in an indigenous community in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Residents of the community told Human Rights Watch of numerous cases of acute poisoning by pesticides in recent years from both aerial and ground spraying.

© 2018 Marizilda Cruppé/Human Rights Watch
Brazil is accelerating approval of new agricultural pesticides. In 2018, the government approved 450 new pesticides—more than in any other year of the past decade. Another 262 new pesticides or new brands of existing products have been approved so far this year. Of those approved this year, the Brazilian National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) classifies at least 82 of them as “extremely toxic.” Some of them are banned or restricted in the United States and Europe.

The introduction of new pesticides is taking place while the government is already failing to respond to pesticide poisoning. Last year, when my organization investigated the issue, we documented cases of acute poisoning from pesticide drift at sites across Brazil, that is, when pesticide spray drifts off target during application, or when pesticides vaporize and drift to adjacent areas in the days after spraying.

People described symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, headaches, and dizziness. In many communities, people said they feared reprisals from powerful farmers if they advocated for protection. Chronic pesticide exposure is also associated with cancer, infertility, impaired fetal development, and other serious effects.

Thirty years ago, Brazil enacted Law 7802—the Pesticide Law. This was, at the time, one of the world’s toughest pesticide laws. But an explosion of large-scale, mono-crop farming has made Brazil one of the world’s biggest consumers of pesticides, and enforcement has not kept up.

A national prohibition on aerial spraying of highly hazardous pesticides within 500 meters of inhabited sites is often ignored. Rules for ground spraying—the most common method of pesticide application—are usually left to states, and only 8 of the 27 have established buffer zones. In those, too, enforcement is inconsistent. After release of our report last year, the agriculture minister committed to establishing buffer zones for ground spraying across the country. But he left office before getting it done. Rural Brazilians remain exposed to highly hazardous pesticides, and the new minister, in office since January 2019, should follow through on the promise.

Agriculture Ministry officials tell reporters who ask about the rapid-fire pesticide approvals that they are streamlining the assessment process by reducing bureaucracy. While they hasten approvals, Congress is considering a bill to shrink the roles of the health and environment ministries in those approvals—and to weaken rules for the use of pesticides.

Congress should vote down the bill. The proliferation of highly hazardous pesticides requires stronger, not weaker, oversight and protections.

Authorities should undertake an urgent, thorough analysis of the impact of pesticides on the health of rural communities. While doing so, they should impose a moratorium on aerial spraying, and on ground spraying near homes, schools, and other sensitive sites.

Pesticide use requires constant, rigorous scrutiny. Government failings to ensure this happens can lead to serious human rights violations: for example, exposure can cause serious harm to health, poison drinking water, and damage the environment. The country’s consolidation of its position as a farming powerhouse and its global advantage as one of China’s biggest food suppliers, should not come at the expense of Brazilians’ human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Drone footage taken by the Norwegian Refugee Council in Basra city in October 2018.

© 2018 Norwegian Refugee Council

Basra holds more of Iraq’s oil reserves than any other governorate. By last  December, Iraq was exporting 3.726 million barrels of oil a day, generating US$6.1 billion a month in state revenue. And yet this wealth has not bought Basrawis access to even their most basic right- sufficient, safe, accessible and affordable water. 

For almost 30 years Iraqi authorities have failed to provide many Iraqis with safe drinking water. This failure led to an acute water crisis in Basra last year that sent at least 118,000 people to the hospital and contributed to protests throughout the city last summer and again this summer. 

This situation is a result of complex factors that almost guarantee future crises if they are not addressed, including reduced water flow, sea water intrusion, pollution, and mismanagement of waterways. But local and federal authorities have done little to address these serious problems, with some citing high levels of rainfall this spring as an excuse to wait another year.

One of the most shocking aspects of last year’s crisis in Basra has been the lack of any official explanation about why people got sick or what the issues with the water were. The former Prime Minister’s office, Nahrain University, and the World Health Organization all sent teams to Basra to test water samples, but their reports have remained confidential. So we went to Basra in January to investigate.

We interviewed water sector and UN officials, but all they seemed to be able to tell us was that the water had been “contaminated.” But when I probed further—what exactly had been in the water that caused vomiting, diarrhea, acute stomach pain—no one could identify the pollutant. 

So we at least tried to identify the possible causes. Our team looked at the ways that government mismanagement has contributed to the contamination, and at its impact on people’s lives in Basra. We found evidence that residents, industries, and farms, in Basra, and further north, are dumping untreated waste right into the rivers and the government has not put in place robust measures to stop it.

By reviewing satellite imagery we also found evidence of at least two major oil spills in 2018 that ran into the Shatt al-Arab in central Basra city that were never publicly reported. The Shatt al-Arab , where the Euphrates and Tigris join, is the main water source for the city and its water treatment plants. This might explain why some Basrawis said their tap water had smelled like gasoline, and that they could light it on fire. The satellite imagery also showed evidence of a likely harmful algae bloom right in the center of Basra city during the crisis, something that authorities unfortunately never tested for in the water, they said.

There were also other factors, like less rainfall, most likely due to climate change, and damming upstream, including in Turkey and Iran. These factors were diminishing the rivers leading to the Shatt al-Arab, allowing more salt water to enter upstream from the Persian Gulf in the summer months. During the crisis, all that most public water treatment plants in Basra did was add some chlorine to the river water, which is not effective for getting rid of contaminants in saline water. 

Why did the authorities keep sending the contaminated water from the Shatt al-Arab to Basrawis’ homes? Because there is not enough fresh water coming to Basra from the government-built canals. One reason is that the authorities had been letting businessmen and farmers tap right into those canals and steal the water for years, before cracking down.

While  the causes of the water contamination in Basra, and even the acute crisis in 2018 are complex, the impact is painfully clear. Basra residents, long ago stopped using tap water for drinking and cooking, buying water from desalinization plants brought in by trucks. Lower income people have struggled to pay for this drinking water. 

But now Basra residents apparently risk illness from just using the water to wash their food or themselves, and the authorities have not enforced standards even for water for these purposes. 

The lack of sufficient fresh water has also cost Basra its title as the country’s biggest producer of dates. Farmers have been irrigating their farmland with the saline water from the Shatt al-Arab for many years now, killing off most of their crops and livestock as a result.

Iraqis should be asking the federal government and Basra officials why the water made them sick. They have a right to know and authorities should release the results of their investigations during the crisis. They should take steps to remedy the underlying causes of the crisis and inform the public about what steps they have taken to ensure that this does not happen again.

The government also needs to create a national public health advisory system, to warn residents if a specific contaminant is in their water or environment and advise them on how to stay safe. Iraqis should call on authorities to take their rights to water, to health, and to sanitation seriously, to fix their water supply, and to alert them when problems arise. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A crop dusting plane dusts cotton crops in Lemoore, California, September 25, 2001.

© 2001 AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian, File

Last week, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided not to ban chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic pesticide that, according to studies funded by the agency, has been linked to developmental delay in children. This decision is just the latest example of the Trump administration obstructing public and environmental health regulations of toxic materials.

The decision follows several attempts by the administration to quash a 2015 EPA proposal to ban chlorpyrifos. These efforts began just weeks after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, to which the manufacturer of the pesticide, Corteva (formerly DowDupont), contributed $1 million.

Chlorpyrifos belongs to a class of chemicals called organophosphates. Scientists have linked organophosphate exposures to childhood cancers. They have also found chlorpyrifos exposure to increase the risk of neurodevelopmental challenges such as learning disabilities, developmental delay, and ADHD, as well as dizziness, confusion, respiratory paralysis, and death.

Considering these serious health risks, the decision by the EPA’s administrator is misguided. The EPA also failed to comply with the relevant standards under the Food Quality Protection Act, which requires the agency to demonstrate that there is a reasonable certainty the pesticide will not cause harm. The EPA inverted the evidentiary standard when it noted that groups challenging chlorpyrifos’s use did not have “sufficiently valid, complete or reliable” data demonstrating the product is not safe.

In recognizing the serious public health threats posed by chlorpyrifos exposure, US states have taken matters into their own hands. Hawaii and California have passed laws to ban the pesticide and New YorkOregon, Maryland, and Connecticut have similar initiatives underway.

But despite some state laws, chlorpyrifos continues to be used on food crops such as corn, fruit, nuts, and soybeans in other areas of the US. As a result, agricultural workers, their families, and those who live near crop fields or waste disposal sites all remain at increased risk of exposure and serious illnesses.

Exposure to dangerous pesticides undermines the rights to health and a healthy environment of communities across the United States. By rejecting its own science, the Trump administration continues to put these rights at risk.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Iraqi authorities have failed to ensure for almost 30 years that Basra residents have sufficient safe drinking water, resulting in on-going health concerns, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The situation culminated in an acute water crisis that sent at least 118,000 people to hospital in 2018 and led to violent protests. 

The 128-page report, “Basra is Thirsty: Iraq’s Failure to Manage the Water Crisis,” found that the crisis is a result of complex factors that if left unaddressed will most likely result in future water-borne disease outbreaks and continued economic hardship. The authorities at the local and federal level have done little to address the underlying conditions causing the situation.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Video: Water Crisis in Basra

Iraqi authorities have failed to ensure for almost 30 years that Basra residents have sufficient safe drinking water, resulting in on-going health concerns, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The situation culminated in an acute water crisis that sent at least 118,000 people to hospital in 2018 and led to violent protests. 


(Baghdad) – Iraqi authorities have failed to ensure for almost 30 years that Basra residents have sufficient safe drinking water, resulting in on-going health concerns, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The situation culminated in an acute water crisis that sent at least 118,000 people to hospital in 2018 and led to violent protests. 

The 128-page report, “Basra is Thirsty: Iraq’s Failure to Manage the Water Crisis,” found that the crisis is a result of complex factors that if left unaddressed will most likely result in future water-borne disease outbreaks and continued economic hardship. The authorities at the local and federal level have done little to address the underlying conditions causing the situation.

“Shortsighted politicians are citing increased rainfall as the reason they do not need to urgently deal with Basra’s persistent crisis,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But Basra will continue to face acute water shortages and pollution crises in the coming years, with serious consequences, if the government doesn’t invest now in targeted, long-term, and badly needed improvements.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 58 Basra residents, workers at private and public water facilities, and healthcare professionals, and reviewed water sample tests from the Shatt al-Arab river, treatment plants, and taps in homes. Human Rights Watch also interviewed representatives from Basra’s provincial council, governor’s office, and the Ministries of Water Resources, Municipalities and Public Works’ water and sewage departments, Health and Environment, and Agriculture, and analyzed academic and public health data and over 20 years of scientific and commercial satellite imagery of the region to substantiate many of the findings.

Basra’s primary water sources are the Shatt al-Arab river and its freshwater canals. Human Rights Watch found that Iraqi authorities have failed to properly manage and regulate Iraq’s water resources, depriving people in southern Iraq’s Basra governorate – four million people – of their right to safe drinking water for decades, including during the period of occupation by the US- and UK-led Coalition Provisional Authority. But multiple government failures since the 1980s, including poor management of upstream water sources, inadequate regulation of pollution and sewage, and chronic neglect and mismanagement of water infrastructure, have caused the quality of these waterways to deteriorate.

To cope with water pollution and shortages, Basra residents have had to rely on purchasing water. The high cost, especially during the crisis, falls hardest on poorer residents, and makes them particularly vulnerable to exposure to unsafe tap water.

Jaafar Sabah, a farmer from Abu al-Khasib, a poor town to the southeast of Basra, told Human Rights Watch:

Each year I was getting 50 percent of the yield of the year before, and then in 2018, almost nothing survived. In 2018, the salinity level in the water was so high that I could grab the salt from the water with my own hands. I am dying of thirst and so are my children. There were four cases of poisoning in my family. I have no money and I cannot take them to the hospital. Where do I get the money from?

The crisis has been worsened by reduced freshwater flow rates in the rivers due to upstream damming linked to sugar plantations and other agricultural development, particularly in Iran, and lower rainfall in recent decades. As a result of higher temperatures due to climate change, water scarcity is projected to increase in the region. Yet there are no adequate policies to lessen harmful impacts. This has been exacerbated by unsustainable water use in agriculture and for domestic purposes. The lack of sufficient water has led to seawater intrusion into the Shatt al-Arab, making the water unsuitable for human consumption and irrigation of many crops. 

Human Rights Watch has found evidence of a likely large harmful algal bloom along the Shatt al-Arab in the middle of the city of Basra that may have contributed to the health crisis in the summer of 2018. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights also shows that an accumulation of garbage along canals throughout Basra that feed into the Shatt al-Arab in central Basra city, from March 2018 to February 2019.  Satellite image date October 28, 2018. 

© 2019 DigitalGlobe-Maxar Technologies; Source: European Space Imaging.

Basra’s public water plants are not equipped with the technology to make sea water potable. This makes chlorine, a chemical commonly used to treat water, less effective. Moreover, experts say that water authorities have struggled to obtain and use adequate quantities of chlorine due to strict controls aimed at preventing the chemical from falling into the hands of groups that have used it as a weapon.

Even where chlorine is added, high levels of turbidity or salt in water can make chlorination less effective for killing bacteria. In addition, Basra’s piping network is cracked, and fecally contaminated groundwater enters into the network so that the amount of chlorine added at the treatment plan will likely not effectively treat the new contaminants entering the system.

Moreover, authorities turn a blind eye to activities that pollute Basra’s water resources. By reviewing satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch discovered two likely oil spills affecting the Shatt al-Arab in central Basra during 2018, as well as two pipelines periodically releasing what appears to be large volumes of waste into the water.

In the summer of 2018, at least 118,000 people were hospitalized due to symptoms doctors identified as related to water quality. Authorities still have not published any official investigations into the cause of the health crisis.

Possible causes of the 2018 illnesses include viruses (such as norovirus), parasites (giardia or cryptosporidium), bacteria (e. coli), and toxic metals from sewage and agricultural and industrial pollution. The high salinity of the water may also have contributed to the outbreak, according to experts involved in water sample testing during the crisis.

Human Rights Watch also found evidence of a likely large algal bloom in the Shatt al-Arab during the disease outbreak. Waste in water and higher temperatures associated with climate change can contribute to this situation, but the government apparently did not look into it. Laboratories that tested water samples at the time never tested for harmful algae.

Iraq has no public health advisory system to inform residents when a community’s drinking water is, or could be, contaminated, and what steps should be taken to mitigate harm. 

Satellite imagery shows what appears to be a likely oil spill into the Shatt al-Arab near the Nahr Bin Umar oil and gas field, a site run by the Basra Oil Company (BOC), a governmental oil company, about 25 kilometers upstream from Basra city. The spill apparently lasted for at least 10 days. Satellite image date July 15, 2018.

© Planet Labs 2019.

Government engineering projects to improve water quality have failed to materialize due to mismanagement and corruption. For years, farmers and businesses were tapping into the freshwater canals, leaving insufficient water for Basra’s public treatment plants for drinking water.

These combined failures violate Basra residents’ rights to water, sanitation, health, information, and property (land and crops) guaranteed under international and national law.

Agriculture is the main source of income for rural communities in Basra governate. However, irrigation with saline water that damages soil and kills plants and upstream developments have reduced crop production substantially.

To achieve the right to water, governments are obliged to work toward universal access to water and sanitation for all, without discrimination, while prioritizing those most in need. But over 300,000 Basra governorate residents are not connected to the water and sewage network, leading some to illegally tap into the water supply, causing contamination, decreased water pressure, and wastage.

On July 22, renowned Basrawi comedian Ahmed Waheed published a video in partnership with Human Rights Watch calling on Iraqis to demand safe, clean drinking water from the government. He asked Iraqis to post selfies holding a glass of water on social media, using the hashtag #CleanWaterForBasra in solidarity with the people of Basra.

Authorities in Iraq should immediately put in place a public health advisory system that will allow authorities to inform residents when a community's drinking water is, or could be, contaminated, what steps should be taken to mitigate harm, and to establish protocols for government officials to respond to advisories and lift them.

Local and federal authorities should form an inter-jurisdictional independent water and environment task force to monitor the situation, coordinate action by various authorities, and consult with affected populations. It should make public the findings of reports commissioned during the 2018 health crisis and long-term plans to prevent future water crises and to respond to potential crises. It should ensure compensation for those whose livelihoods are affected.

“Access to safe drinking water is not only essential to our survival, but it is a fundamental right for everyone,” Fakih said. “While solving Basra’s water crisis will take serious planning, time, and money, it is possible to address so long as authorities take their responsibilities seriously. The alternative is deadly.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Volunteers tend to a man in a wheelchair and his partner, after they were rescued during flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey in Orange, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017.

© 2019 AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The United Nations Human Rights Council made history on Friday when it adopted a resolution on climate change and the rights of people with disabilities. The resolution calls on governments to adopt a disability-inclusive approach when taking action to address climate change.

The impacts of climate change disproportionately affect people with disabilities. They are frequently in situations of social, economic, and political disadvantage and may not have access to adequate resources, information, and services necessary to adapt to the effects of climate change. For example, people with disabilities may feel the health impacts of climate change more severely, as some are more susceptible to invasive disease due to pre-existing health conditions. Additionally, many are at particular risk of neglect, abandonment, and even death during instances of migration or natural disasters, which are increasing in frequency and ferocity, due to physical, communication, and other barriers, as well as disrupted support networks.

This is the first time the Council has addressed the rights of people with disabilities as they relate to climate change. While women, indigenous peoples, and youth have successfully become part of discussions around climate action, persons with disabilities have largely been absent.

This resolution could be an important first step to remedy that gap, presenting an opportunity for persons with disabilities to engage in the conversation about climate resilience and for governments to ensure that happens. The resolution includes a mandate for the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to conduct a comprehensive study–engaging governments, United Nations bodies, intergovernmental organizations, and disability rights groups–focused on ways to better protect and promote the rights of persons with disabilities in the context of climate change.

As is central to the disability rights movement, governments, UN agencies, and environmental groups should echo the principle “nothing about us, without us” in acting on this resolution. Governments need to reach out and listen to people with disabilities, who are among those who feel, or will feel, more acutely the adverse effects of environmental change, and will be important leaders in fighting it.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

French CRS riot police forcibly remove French youth and environmental activists as they block a bridge during a demonstration to urge world leaders to act against climate change, in Paris, France, June 28, 2019.

© 2019 Reuters/Charles Platiau

Last weekend, France recorded an all-time heat record of 45.9 degrees Celsius. With rising temperatures globally, heatwaves are becoming more intense and frequent and their impacts can be devastating. But when a group called Extinction Rebellion organized a protest on a Paris bridge on June 28 demanding France act more swiftly to reduce carbon emissions, they faced a harsh police response.

Video footage from the protest shows Paris riot police using teargas from very close range against a couple dozen activists peacefully staging a sit-in.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of disproportionate use of force by French police including unnecessary use of teargas against migrant children in Calais in 2017, and during some “yellow vest” and student protests last year. As climate activists ring alarm bells, they are facing government repression in many parts of the world. Some climate activists were prevented from participating in last year’s climate talks in Poland.

But the French police response comes at a time when much of the government seems to agree that acting on climate change is a priority.

Last week, the French High Council for the Climate, a government-mandated panel, published a report finding that France is not on track to meet its goals under the Paris Agreement. The French Parliament has recognized the global threat by declaring a climate emergency. In the lead up to the G20 Summit in Japan, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced he would treat climate change as a red-line issue. In a recent speech, he even called on student climate activists to continue holding their leaders to account: “I need you to make our lives impossible…because the more you do that, the more likely we are to act.”

The French minister of the interior, Christophe Castaner, has asked for a written account from Parisian police authorities about Friday’s response. On Monday, the public prosecutor also opened an investigation to assess whether the police response was proportionate.

The government should also reflect more broadly on the implications of its actions toward climate activists. At a time when environmental defenders are under threat globally, the French government should listen to those raising climate concerns, not repress them.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Environmental activists and petitioners listen to a tribunal ruling over the construction of a coal-fired power plant, at the supreme court building in Nairobi, Kenya Wednesday, June 26, 2019.

Environmental activists in Kenya scored a unique victory last week. On June 26, the National Environmental Tribunal revoked a license issued to Amu Power Company to establish a controversial coal-fired power plant in Lamu.

The Tribunal found the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) had issued the building license even though the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) was prepared without public consultation or participation.   

Following the decision, if Amu Power still plans to proceed with the project, it would need to successfully appeal the ruling or carry out a fresh ESIA, looking at the impacts of the power plant on people’s livelihoods, health, and land issues, and reapply for a license from NEMA. While this decision still allows Amu Power to restart the process, it will give Lamu activists an opportunity to raise their concerns over the establishment of a coal plant, such as their pollution of land, sea, and air; the destruction of Mangrove forests; and lack of clear mitigation measures for climate change.  

Environmental activists campaigning against the coal plant, which is linked to Lamu-Port-South-Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET), a massive regional infrastructure development project that connects at least three countries, have suffered harassment by the Kenyan state authorities. Activists in Lamu, who have teamed up with other activists in and outside Kenya, have held peaceful protests, carried out community meetings, and lobbied the international community. In October 2016, they filed an appeal against Amu Power and NEMA at the Tribunal.

Activist groups such as Save Lamu and Lamu Youth Alliance have faced many challenges voicing these concerns and protesting the plant’s construction. In a joint report in December 2018, Human Rights Watch and the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders found that Lamu activists opposing the construction of coal plant had faced threats, arrests, detentions by police, and arbitrary restrictions on public meetings.

By ruling that the environmental authority failed to uphold Kenya’s own environmental protection laws when granting the license to Amu, the tribunal has given authorities a chance to re-assess the plant’s impacts and make sure affected communities are consulted as the law requires. The authorities should allow everyone the space to be able to make their views known.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Business owners and workers assess flood waters as some start cleanup on Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in Harmony, Pennsylvania. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

News from the central United States is full of natural disaster, sodden houses, and suffering as a flooding crisis continues in the region. The Anthropocene Alliance (Aa), an organization with more than 30 local and regional community leaders - mostly women - from 16 US states, is demanding action.

This week, they asked the US government to take “action now to stop development in wetlands and floodplains, reform flood insurance laws, and reduce human-caused greenhouse gases that cause global warming.”  

Aa’s executive director, Harriet Festing, told me after disasters it’s often women who pull communities together and lead responses to climate change impacts. Human Rights Watch has seen this first-hand speaking to women in Puerto Rico, a US territory, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Many women spoke about how, without any support from the US government, they and others took action and provided services, from thousands of meals to safe homes for domestic violence survivors.

Women community leaders we spoke to in Puerto Rico said they have never been consulted by government disaster experts about preparing for more extreme weather events, foreseeable because of climate change science. Activists, nongovernmental organization leaders, lactation consultants, ob-gyns, and others told us their work was taken for granted or ignored after the 2017 storm.

Women globally want states to take more action against climate change. On Friday, June 28, women leaders were at the United Nations Human Rights Council demanding not just that states reduce emissions but that women, who experience global warming impacts differently and often more severely than men, are empowered to protect communities. A new report mandated by governments at the council demands “full, equal, and meaningful participation of women with diverse backgrounds in climate change mitigation and adaptation at all levels.”

The Human Rights Council’s message matters for all women living with the impacts of climate change, including those facing flooding in the central US and in Puerto Rico. And it should matter to President Donald Trump.

He may have pulled the US out of the Human Rights Council and the Paris Accord on Climate Change, and ditched his predecessor’s climate action plan. But it’s time that he, and those who want his job in 2020, start paying attention to women, especially from poor and marginalized communities, on the front lines of climate change.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Alexandra Koroleva, Zelenogradsk, Kaliningrad region, Russia. 

© 2018 Private
(Moscow) – A prominent Russian environmentalist has fled the country as criminal cases were opened against her in connection to Russia’s law on “foreign agents”, Human Rights Watch said today. Alexandra Koroleva, 65, head of Ekozaschita! (Ecodefence!), one of Russia’s oldest environmental groups, is seeking asylum in Germany because in Russia, among other things, she could be imprisoned for two years for being held criminally liable for unpaid fines levied against Ekozaschita! under the abusive law.

Koroleva’s group refused to register under the 2012 law that requires any Russian group accepting foreign funding and carrying out activities deemed to be “political” to register as a foreign agent, a term that in Russia implies “spy” or “traitor.” However, in 2014, the Justice Ministry forcibly added Ekozaschita! to the “foreign agents” registry. The group and its supporters believe the move was a reaction to their campaign against the construction of a nuclear plant in the Kaliningrad region, where the group is based. The government should drop the cases against Koroleva.

“Instead of celebrating Koroleva’s lifelong commitment to environmental activism, Russian authorities have forced her into exile,” said Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The cases against Koroleva should be dropped, and Russia should repeal its ‘foreign agents’ law once and for all.”

Human Rights Watch and multiple other human rights organizations and bodies have repeatedly condemned the Law on Foreign Agents as a violation of human rights norms, and called for its repeal. Ekozaschita!/Ecodefence! and 48 other Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have applications pending before the European Court of Human Rights (application no. 9988/13) arguing that the Law on Foreign Agents violates several human rights norms including on freedom of expression and association, a conclusion endorsed by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.

Although, as a matter of principle, Ekozaschita! did not comply with the reporting requirements in the “foreign agents” law, it continued to file all other reports required of civil society organizations by authorities in a timely manner. In May 2019, the Federal Court Bailiff Service opened five criminal cases against Koroleva for unpaid fines. Information about the cases was only made public in recent days.

Between 2016 and 2018, both Ekozaschita! and Koroleva in her personal capacity were fined on numerous occasions for failure to submit the reports under the “foreign agents” law and for refusal to publicly identify the group as a “foreign agent” organization.

The Federal Bailiff Service referred five unpaid fines for enforcement proceedings after the payment deadlines had expired. The fines range between 10,000 and 100,000 rubles (approx. US$150 and US$1,500), and the enforcement proceedings entailed an additional 10,000 rubles per case. The total amount of fines against Koroleva and Ekozaschita! deemed overdue or due by Russian authorities is about US$18,000. Koroleva’s colleagues are trying to raise the money on several crowdfunding platforms in the hopes that paying the fines will prevent Koroleva’s conviction.

In December 2018, Russian authorities froze Ekozaschita!’s bank accounts - as they had the power to do under the court decision execution proceedings -, leaving it unable to make any payments and effectively blocking its activities. In March, after the group found out about the fines, Ekozaschita!’s lawyer filed an application for the group’s liquidation, but the Justice Ministry refused to register it. Ekozaschita! is planning to go to court to contest the refusal, their lawyer said.

The Justice Ministry has initiated liquidation proceedings against several nongovernmental groups that it forcibly registered as foreign agents, including such prominent groups as Golos, an election watchdog, and Agora, a human rights litigation group. More than 30 organizations have shut down rather than accept the false and stigmatizing label of “foreign agent.”

Currently, the Justice Ministry’s registry of “foreign agents” includes 75 organizations. Under the law, offenses such as refusal to declare and register one’s organization as “foreign agent”, to submit reports as “foreign agents,” or to put a “foreign agent” marker on all publications, websites, and even staff business cards are punishable by fines of up to 500,000 rubles (approx. US$8,000); and there is no limit on the number of fines an organization can be ordered to pay. In November 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting how the law has been used to silence some of the country’s most effective, rigorous, and committed environmental groups.

In June 2016, authorities in the Rostov region brought criminal proceedings against Valentina Cherevatenko, a prominent rights activist, for “malicious evasion” of the “foreign agents” law, but dropped the case a year later. Her case had been the only example of attempted criminal prosecution of an organization’s leader under the “foreign agents” law until the authorities targeted Koroleva.

“The cases against Koroleva are meant to punish her and her environmental group at a time when environmental activism and protests in Russia are on the rise,” Aitkhozhina said. “But the message the authorities want to send through the ‘foreign agents’ law is broader—that any organization that engages in activism in Russia does so at its own peril.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A beach where a heavy winds and strong waves washed ashore piles of garbage in Keserwan, north of Beirut, Lebanon, on 23 January 2018. 

© 2018 Marwan Naamani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Beirut) – The Borj Hammoud landfill, one of two principal landfills serving Beirut, Lebanon, is set to reach capacity by the end of July 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The government had initially estimated that the landfill would be in operation until 2020.

The government has taken no steps to provide an alternative site for Beirut’s solid waste. Instead, a 13-page solid waste roadmap the Environment Ministry submitted to a ministerial committee on June 3 recommends expanding the Borj Hammoud landfill. Experts say that the landfill is affecting nearby residents’ health. Yet, the Environment Ministry has proposed its expansion without an Environmental Impact Assessment or consultation with affected communities, solid waste management experts have said.

“The government has to answer for why Lebanon’s waste management infrastructure has not been improved upon four years after the last waste crisis led to mounds of trash in the streets of Beirut,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government may be ready to bury its head in the sand but residents don’t want to end up buried in piles of trash.”

The Borj Hammoud landfill is currently emanating particularly strong odors, which an international consultant hired by the Environment Ministry determined was caused by manure and garbage in various states of decomposition that have been dumped there.

Nearby residents and public health experts fear that the odors signal the emission of toxic pollutants. According to air pollution experts, chronic exposure to these strong odors is linked to respiratory diseases, allergies, and the spread of bacteria. Further, experts state that leachate from the Borj Hammoud landfill is being dumped into the sea, polluting the water and making the sea in areas surrounding the landfill dangerous for swimming.

Both Lebanese legislation and international standards stipulate that an Environmental Impact Assessment must be conducted before a project can begin and that measures must be taken to mitigate unavoidable adverse impacts.

The ministerial committee should convene immediately to discuss the roadmap and share its contents with experts and with the public for a broader consultation prior to finalization and submission to the cabinet, Human Rights Watch said.

The roadmap also incorporates core aspects of the Environment Ministry’s strategy on solid waste management, a ministry official who worked on it told Human Rights Watch. The ministry was tasked with establishing the strategy under Lebanon’s Law 80/2018 on integrated solid waste management, the country’s first law on solid waste management, passed on September 24, 2018, and it was supposed to do so by March. However, the ministry official said it is still being finalized in line with the comments from civil society and other stakeholders.

Human Rights Watch reviewed a draft summary of the strategy and on March 20 submitted feedback and recommendations for revisions to better respect residents’ rights. In particular, Human Rights Watch recommended strengthening plans for consultation with the community, creating more effective monitoring and enforcement systems, combatting discrimination in the current waste management practices, and raising public awareness about waste management issues.

The ministry official said that the roadmap also includes a list of decrees and decisions that should be passed so that Lebanon’s integrated waste management law can be carried out and maps of existing facilities and of 24 other proposed sites for new sanitary landfills, along with a draft law outlining fees and taxes that the central government and the municipalities can impose to cover their waste management costs. Without such a law, neither the ministry nor the municipalities will be able to fulfill their commitments as set out in the law and the strategy, Human Rights Watch said.

The proposed expansion of the Borj Hammoud landfill is broadly considered a stopgap measure until the broader solid waste strategy is implemented. The initial establishment of the landfill itself was a supposedly temporary solution to the 2015 trash crisis, until the government found a more sustainable solution.

The 2015 trash crisis was caused by closing the Naameh landfill after years of protests by local residents, without an alternate waste management plan. Without a disposal site, the waste collection company halted its operations, and garbage built up on the streets of Beirut.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch investigated the health problems arising from the increasing open burning of waste as a consequence of the breakdown of existing waste management plans. Human Rights Watch found that the government was failing in its obligations to protect people’s health through its mismanagement of waste. Residents of areas where waste was being dumped and burned reported health problems including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coughing, throat irritation, skin conditions, and asthma. Air pollution from open waste burning has been linked to heart disease and emphysema, and can expose people to carcinogenic compounds.

Experts fear that the proposed roadmap does not present sustainable solutions. An environmental expert has put forward a proposal that would avert the need to expand the Borj Hammoud landfill. It would cut the amount of waste in half and extend the life of existing landfills by requiring residents to sort their waste at home. This would give the ministry additional time to introduce more long-term solutions.

According to researchers at the American University of Beirut, only 10 to 12 percent of Lebanon’s waste cannot be composted or recycled. However, currently around 85 percent goes to open dumps or landfills. Sustainable waste management solution should focus on reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills rather than expanding existing landfills, Human Rights Watch said.

“There is no excuse for continuing to delay the implementation of a rights-compliant waste management system,” Fakih said. “The ministerial committee should urgently make the tough decisions necessary to solve the problem rather than continuing to adopt temporary half-measures.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am