By Meg Kramer

April 8, 2019

The Global Water Alliance conference was held on March 21st at the University of Pennsylvania to explore Water and Sanitation, Hygiene (WASH) challenges globally as well as in the United States. The conference was supported by The Water Center at Penn (WCP) and the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) and attracted over 100 interested faculty, students, and representatives from external organizations.

The first panel of the morning was a wake up call to many in the audience. Many people assume that WASH challenges exist in developing countries, not in the United States. When Americans think about our national water problems, they often think about Flint Michigan where contaminated water has had negative health, economic and social impacts on thousands of residents, the majority of whom are underprivileged. And while Flint Michigan has become the symbol of America’s water crisis, the first panel of the Global Water Alliance conference showed that Flint is just one of the many water crises plaguing communities across the United States.The first panel, titled WASH Challenges in the US: Water System Vulnerabilities in the US, was lead by Howard Neukrug, Executive Director of WCP and included Zoe Roller, US Water Alliance, Emily Kutil, We the People of Detroit and Mustafa Santiago Ali, World Wildlife Federation.

After Neukrug provided a brief description of how and why much of the US urban water system is failing, Zoe Roller discussed how water access and affordability reflects deep inequalities across America. Over 1.6 million people in the US lack access to water facilities, most of whom reside in vulnerable communities such as minority and tribal groups.

Data on this topic is insufficient so the US Water Alliance conducted a National Hotspot Study to understand how lack of water in these communities affects health, educational and economic potential. Using a combination of approaches, research teams went to six Hotspots around the US.

  1. California where at least 85,000 homes are without plumbing and groundwater contamination is rampant due to agricultural run off and industrial contamination. Some migrant workers live in their cars and therefore have no access to running water.
  2. The Four Corner states where researchers found that in tribal areas 40% of households have no access to plumbing. Water is also contaminated from radioactive uranium as a result of nuclear testing and some people have to drive several hours to get water.
  3. Colonias on the US/Mexico border where informally built housing units lack access to wastewater treatment and complete plumbing. Lack of trust in water systems is another hallmark of this part of the country.
  4. Appalachia where water quality is seriously impacted from acid mine drainage. People then compound the public health problems caused by contaminated water by releasing wastewater into the streams from which they drink.
  5. The Deep South in Alabama and Mississippi. In this part of the country only 20% of the population has septic systems, but those septic systems are failing. Additionally, soil in the region is not absorbent so spraying wastewater simply causes raw sewage to run into peoples’ yards.
  6. Puerto Rico where 5% of the population lacks plumbing and almost all water issues have been exacerbated by Hurricane Maria. Today many houses are still unable to connect to sewer lines.

Despite the unique WASH challenges each Hotspot faces, there are commonalities between them. Each Hotspot faces a multitude of problems, all of which are interrelated.  Each Hotspot lacks funding to maintain and or fix their water infrastructure. And each Hotspot has a legacy of colonialism that helped to create disproportionate water problems for underprivileged communities.

Emily Kutil of We the People of Detroit picked up on Roller’s point about disproportionate water problems in underprivileged communities and the lack of environmental justice by showing how the Flint water crisis was a result of a series of political decisions made in favor of wealthier suburban versus lower income city residents. These decisions resulted in the removal of Flint from Detroit’s water infrastructure system, which lead to the serious water quality issues that have been making headlines for several years.

Mustafa Santiago Ali of World Wildlife Federation rounded out the panel by pointing out that over 3,000 locations in the US have higher lead levels in their drinking water than in Flint. “Why aren’t we talking about it?” he asked. Ali listed other surprising facts such as that in Appalachia over 3,000 mines are still leaking toxic chemicals into US waterways; that in poor areas, people on fixed incomes have no choice but to drink contaminated water because bottled water is simply too expensive; and that it is not just minorities who are impacted. People on military bases are commonly exposed to many toxins including PFOS and other contaminants in their water supply.

“Who gets to make decisions about what type of infrastructure will exist in our communities?” Ali asked. Unfortunately, right now the people who own the copper mines and fracking operations are making the decisions due to their influence with politicians and regulators, while the many citizens, especially the underprivileged, don’t have that same access or influence.

But these injustices will soon become too difficult to bear. With increasing impacts of climate change, water resources will become scarcer and water quality will be more challenging to maintain. Ali reminded the audience what Martin Luther King said long ago, “We come to these shores in different ships but we are all in the same boat now.”