Environmental Health – A Basic Human Right
Freedom of expression, freedom from persecution based on race, gender or creed, freedom from inhumane treatment – these are the human rights usually thought of as the inalienable liberties afforded to all people.  There is another integral right, one which is sometimes forgotten – the right to environmental health.

Environmental health and human rights intersect at the most critical level of life.  The welfare of human beings depends on healthy ecosystems.  While ideals such as religious freedom and gender equality may stand out more obviously in the traditional realm of human rights, a healthy environment is just as critical to the well-being of humankind.  Without fundamentals like clean air and water, people cannot live healthy lives, which may prevent them from exercising other human rights.  As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs illustrates, people must have their physiological needs like hunger and thirst met before they can do anything else – including participating in civil society.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the United Nations in 1948, states that all people are guaranteed the right to a standard of living “adequate for health and well-being.”  In 2003, the World Health Organizationexpanded the language of the original declaration to include clean water as a human right.  According to the World Bank, more than 1 billion people lack a safe source of drinking water.  This statistic represents one of the greatest human rights injustices in the world today.

The world’s rural poor survive by practicing subsistence agriculture, and consequently depend on natural resources like land and water for sustenance.  Without the produce they grow, many would have no means of supporting their families.  Thus, it is essential to safeguard the environment to protect the livelihood of this huge segment of the population.  Environmental protection groups like Conservation International are embarking on such projects to improve the lives of those living in “biodiversity hotspots,” while the Peace Corps continues its decades-long process of teaching ecologically sound farming techniques from the African plains to the Amazon.

Another environmental advocacy group, Earthjustice, wrote in its 2004 report, Human Rights and the Environment, “the relationship between environmental problems and human rights violations calls for a holistic treatment of these issues.”  The Leadership Council for Human Rights believes that microfinance represents one way to holistically treat this set of problems.  This strategy of making small business loans to rural poor people not only economically empowers them, but also teaches them valuable lessons in conservation, as many microfinance projects focus on agriculture initiatives such as intensive gardens or co-ops.  Partnering NGOs train project participants to use ecologically sound farming methods.  Microfinance also allows human rights workers to monitor the situation on the ground in remote areas by keeping in close contact with its microfinance partners, helping to secure the rights of vulnerable groups.

While environmental health remains elusive in many parts of the world today, there is great reason to hope that we can provide this essential human right to all people within the coming generations through diligent work and a commitment to the ideal that everyone deserves fresh air, clean water, and a healthy environment in which to live.

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