Story at a glance
- Environmental pollution disproportionately harms Black, Indigenous and other communities of color.
- In South Carolina and many other parts of the country, poor, nonwhite Americans suffer from a lack of clean drinking water.
- Solar powered hydropanels such as those being installed in South Carolina allow communities more control over their water quality.
It’s still raining in Florence, S.C., where a river flood warning has been in effect for days now. As the nation’s eyes are on Texas, where winter storms brought widespread power outages, Rev. Leo Woodberry is thinking about the runoff from local rains and whether it will further contaminate his community’s drinking water.
“We’ve been working on this for thirty years,” said Woodberry, pastor of the Kingdom Living Temple in Florence and director of the New Alpha Community Development Corporation (NACDC), adding that “it’s so refreshing to see movement on the federal level now.”
Kingdom Living Temple is more than a church. It's also part of the statewide coalition working on environmental justice around water quality issues in low-income Black communities. This Friday, they're cutting the ribbon on a new initiative to create a sustainable water source in their own backyard: a 3-acre freshwater farm using Source Global Hydropanel technology.
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“It’s extremely important that communities come up with the solutions that they need. As communities, we know what the problems are, we know what the solutions should be,” said Woodberry. “We know where the floodplains are. The people in those communities know where we could put something like these solar-powered hydropanels. They know where we can store the water and where to locate the supplies so we don't have to wait for FEMA to come in, we don’t have to wait for people to organize themselves so donations can come in.”
This self-reliance is a product of necessity for the Black community that makes up nearly half of the population in a city where nearly 1 in 5 people are living in poverty. Florence is a little over 50 miles from Myrtle Beach, where sea levels are rising faster than predicted.
“In America, we want to hold on to the illusion that we are so far advanced and so far enriched that we don't have the same problems as other places,” Woodberry said.
More and more, he’s seeing families leaving behind their homes and communities due to worsening environmental conditions. Climate migration is happening now, he said, even if the United States isn’t ready to acknowledge it.
Millions of Americans live without running water and basic indoor plumbing and even those who do can't always be sure it's safe. Drinking water systems that constantly violate the law are 40 percent more likely to serve people of color, according to data from the EPA between 2010 and 2016, who already suffer disproportionately from air pollution and emerging symptoms of climate change.
SOURCE, formerly Zero Mass Water, also deployed the technology last year in Navajo Nation, where about 40 percent of households don’t have running water, and today have installed panels in 48 countries. Their hydropanels, which have a 15-year lifespan, harvest water from the air by absorbing water vapor and condensing it using solar energy. And it’s just the beginning of their partnership with Woodberry and his community, said CEO Cody Friesen.
“It’s why we exist. It’s heroes like Rev. Woodberry that get me out of bed in the morning,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has only increased the urgency of the problem last thrust into the national spotlight by the Flint water crisis in 2014. And, of course, it’s only one of the issues the NACDC has battled in recent years that is disproportionately affecting communities of color in the United States.
But Woodberry is encouraged by recent action, including President Biden’s executive order establishing environmental justice as a priority in efforts to address climate change.
“They must make sure that the voices of communities and environmental justice organizations are being heard, because otherwise we run the risk of replicating the same systems of injustice that we’ve been dealing with,” he said. Otherwise, he warned, “because people of color are not at the table to do these things on a federal level, because we’re not at the table with the corporations and the utilities, that's just another manifestation of environmental racism.”
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