A few weeks ago, a contestant in the Miss America contest made headlines when she introduced herself by saying, “From the state with 84 percent of the United States’ fresh water but none for its residents to drink, I am Miss Michigan Emily Sioma.”
In April, Comedian Michelle Wolff ended her controversial White House Correspondents Dinner speech by reminding the audience that, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”
Despite being one of the largest and wealthiest economies in the world, the United States still fails to guarantee its residents access to clean and affordable sources of water.
But let’s be clear: our country’s residents should not live in fear of turning on the tap; and access to water should not be conditional. This is a base necessity for life: clean water is a human right and ensuring access to it should be a top priority for everyone.
And yet, too often it takes a line from a comedian or pageant contestant to remind our lawmakers that the issue even exists.
The latest United States Census Data finds that water poverty—defined as lacking “complete plumbing facilities”—affects nearly 1.6 million people across the country. According to a 2017 investigation, 63 million Americans have been exposed to unsafe drinking water in the past ten years. These numbers includes access to plumbing, and how pollution, industrial waste, and pipe deterioration have infected water sources for millions of people across the country.
And while our lawmakers need to devote more resources into understanding the breadth of the crisis, what is clear is that our country has a problem—and as the problem persists, we are not doing enough to solve it.
Year after year, another city or region announces another water-related crisis. From Flint’s water contamination to California’s water shortage, we’re combating these issues as one-off emergencies—instead of tackling the problem as a systemic, nationwide problem.
“We’re in this really stupid situation where, because of neglect of the infrastructure, we’re spending our scarce resources … taking care of these emergencies,” said Jeffrey Griffiths, a former member of the Drinking Water Committee at the EPA’ s Science Advisory Board. “But we’re not doing anything to think about the future in terms of what we should be doing.”
It’s notable that our country’s water crisis does not affect each resident equally and the weight of its burden lays primarily on people of color and low-income families. And unfortunately, this isn’t new; our modern crisis only continues the pattern of American lawmakers ignoring issues that primarily affect the lives of people of color.
CityLab’s Brentin Mock traces the history back to Reconstruction, when black Americans were forced into less desirable parts of urban areas with less access to water and plumbing. The pattern continued through the rise of modern cities and became a founding tenant of our existing urban planning. Said Mock: “The favoring of white communities over black communities for municipal services, mortgage lending, and transportation funding is a defining characteristic of 20th century planning policy.”
Today, black Americans are approximately twice as likely as white Americans to live without modern plumbing. Our country’s lack of clean water is harming and poisoning people of color and low-income families; and yet our elected officials continue to turn a blind eye.
In a report for the Center for American Progress, Danyelle Solomon and Tracey Ross argue the cause: “Environmental racism is an issue of political power: The negative externalities of industrialization—pollution and hazardous waste—are placed where politicians expect little or no political backlash. For this reason, ZIP codes often has more of an effect on health than genetic codes.”
America is one of the richest countries in the word: it is unconscionable that anyone in the United States has to question the safety of their water when they turn on the tap. Access to clean water is a fundamental right, regardless of the zip code you were born it and it’s time our elected leaders made this a governing priority.
We need lawmakers who are willing to fight for their constituents rights—and we need government leadership that is committed to understanding the causes and effects of the inequality and how we can right it.
This should not even be a debate. Access to clean water should not be negotiable. It’s time our lawmakers started listening and acting for change.