Americans left behind in the global fight for clean water

Americans left behind in the global fight for clean water
© Getty Images

March 22 marks another World Water Day, and it seems like every country has something to celebrate, except the U.S.

Indeed, the global community has made great strides toward universalizing access to safe, clean water as a basic human right. In the quarter-century before 2015, some 2.6 billion people gained access to improved drinking water. From Suriname to Swaziland, even the least developed countries are advancing toward the UN Sustainable Development Goal of providing access to clean water for everyone on the planet by 2030.

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But as other countries celebrate, few of us are paying attention to the worsening water situation here at home. While the theme of World Water Day 2019 is “Leave No One Behind,” sadly, too many Americans have been just that — left behind — when it comes to accessing safe water.

Millions of Americans still don’t have running water or a working toilet

Some 1.6 million people in the U.S. still lack basic plumbing at home. That’s equal to the populations of Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, D.C. combined. Most Americans have no idea, because this longstanding water crisis affects low-income people and communities of color whose problems are often hidden from view in places like Native American reservations, Appalachia, and the colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Today, African-Americans are more than twice as likely to live in homes with substandard plumbing than whites. In Sandbranch, Texas, a few miles outside Dallas, the majority-black community doesn’t have a public water system. The hundred-or-so residents survive on bottled water delivered by a local church. They’re stuck, because selling their houses won’t generate enough money to move.

On the Navajo Nation, where an estimated 40 percent of the 170,000 inhabitants must haul all their water, it’s common for Navajo families to drive 50 miles to buy drinking water. Some resort to livestock troughs or ponds they know will make them sick. Most Navajo get by on fewer than five gallons of water per day, while the typical American consumes about 100.

Decades of under-investment in water infrastructure has led to widespread contamination

In the four years since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, sparked national outrage, lead-tainted water has been discovered in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. In Milwaukee, 8.6 percent of all children show evidence of lead poisoning. Recent analysis found that more than 2,000 water systems in all 50 states have lead levels exceeding federal limits (currently 15 parts-per-billion, but health officials warn that no amount is safe). Collectively, these systems serve 6 million people.

The problem can often be traced to lead service lines, some over a century old, which connect individual homes and buildings to municipal water mains. As they age these pipes are prone to leeching lead, leakage, chemical infiltration and bacterial growth. The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the U.S. drinking water system with a “D” grade. Raising it from a “D” to an “A” won’t be cheap. We’re so far behind that the American Water Works Association estimates the cost at roughly $1 trillion over the next 25 years.

We’re rolling back the environmental safeguards that protect our drinking water

Just last month the Senate confirmed a new EPA chief, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler. His appointment is likely to intensify the current administration’s assault on the Clean Water Act, the landmark 1972 federal law protecting our water resources, starting by weakening regulations governing coal-ash. Coal-ash is the highly toxic residue from coal-burning power plants. There are more than 1,000 coal-ash pits across the country, each of them laden with heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury and chromium-6.

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At the time when a Gallup poll found that 63 percent of Americans worry “a great deal” about the safety of their drinking water, the EPA is also backing off an Obama-era rule that extends federal protection to water sources such as wetlands and major river tributaries. Environmentalists argue that the reversal is a gift to real-estate developers and industrial polluters and will jeopardize water quality for over 100 million Americans.

Adding insult to injury, the EPA is shuttering critical departments, such as its Environmental Justice Office, which protects those citizens most vulnerable to contamination, including low-income communities, African-Americans and indigenous people.

This World Water Day, as the world chants “Leave No One Behind,” the U.S. may be the only nation — developed or developing — where the water-access gap is widening. Add to that the uncertainty of climate change and the increasing unaffordability of water services in places such as Newark and Detroit, which has resulted in tens of thousands of service shut-offs, and our situation seems especially dire.

For Americans, World Water Day isn’t a day for celebration — it’s a day for action. We must start fighting for access to safe, clean drinking water as if our lives depend on it — because they do. We can start by demanding that our public institutions, including the EPA, protect us. And we can elevate the stories of low-income Americans and communities of color in their fight for water equity. 

George McGraw is the founder and executive director of clean water advocacy organization Digdeep.org.