The impact of water poverty in the United States
Access to drinking water and sanitation is a human right enshrined in international law. Although there has been progress in recent years, contaminated water and water-borne diseases remain major threats to public health – not only in low-income countries, but also in richer countries like United States.
On August 3, 2010, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly recognized access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right alongside other fundamental rights, such as life and liberty, freedom of expression and education.
According to the UN:
“The lack of access to safe, sufficient and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene facilities has a devastating effect on the health, dignity and prosperity of billions of people and has significant consequences for the achievement of other human rights. ”
Untreated water contains pathogens such as bacteria that cause diarrhea and parasitic worms that cause
These pathogens spread everywhere when untreated human waste contaminates groundwater and open water that people use to drink, irrigate, bathe and wash utensils.
Over the past decades, progress has been made towards the realization of the universal right to safe drinking water and sanitation.
During the same period, the proportion of the world’s population with access to safely managed sanitation services increased from 28% to 45%.
Despite these advances, dirty drinking water and contaminated soil continue to pose a threat to the health of large numbers of people around the world.
For example, the
The CDC also says there are about 3 million cases of cholera, a water-borne infection, and 95,000 deaths per year.
Due to poor sanitation, parasitic worms in contaminated soil infect hundreds of millions of people around the world each year.
Highlights of the article:
A surprisingly large number of these people live in rich countries. In fact, a study found that between 2013 and 2017, approximately 1.1 million people in the United States had unsafe access to water.
Almost half of these people lived in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. This included 65,000 people in New York City who did not have access to running water.
Researchers at the University of Arizona at Tucson and King’s College London in the UK conducted this study. He appeared in the newspaper Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020.
In the article, the study authors say:
“Without tap water, how do you wash your hands? In a global health pandemic such as COVID-19, the difference between safe and unsafe access to water – starting with those 65,000 unleaded New Yorkers – is a matter of life and death. “
The study found that households without running water were more likely to include people of color, live in mobile homes or rented accommodation, and spend more of their income on shelter costs.
“We offer clear evidence that gaps in urban water access are neither random nor accidental, but underpinned by precarious housing conditions and systemic social and racialized inequalities,” conclude the authors of the study.
They suggest their numbers almost certainly underestimate the scale of the problem, as the US Census Bureau tends to undercount people living in rented accommodation, people who are homeless, and people of color.
They point out, for example, that homeless people often have great difficulty in accessing clean water and toilets, and that their numbers are currently increasing in American cities.
Another study confirmed that while access to water and sanitation is believed to be universal in cities across the United States, official figures do not account for homeless people or substandard housing.
When the researchers took these factors into account, they found that at least 630,000 people did not have access to flush toilets and another 300,000 depended on shared sanitation.
Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta conducted this study. He appeared in the
Although the percentage of people without basic sanitation is low in the United States, write the study authors, the absolute number is high for “a high-income country where the resources exist to solve the problem.”
They note that people living in rented accommodation may have running water and flush toilets, but when these facilities break, landlords can take weeks or months to organize repairs.
The two studies above conclude that introducing measures to ensure affordable and adequate housing is the most effective way to improve access to water and sanitation in American cities.
In 2019, a major report by two nonprofits – the US Water Alliance and Dig Deep – proposed a plan of action to tackle what it called “the hidden water crisis in America”.
The report, Addressing the water shortage in the United States, estimates that more than 2 million people in the United States do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
However, he reaffirms that the United States does not collect comprehensive data on water poverty. This has made it particularly difficult to assess the scale of the problem for those most affected: low-income communities and communities of color.
The report cites evidence that Native American households, for example, are 19 times more likely than white households to have inadequate plumbing.
Additionally, African American and Latin American households appear to be nearly twice as likely to face this challenge as white households.
The authors of the report say the problem is not isolated dwellings living “off the grid” but entire communities without access to clean water and safe sanitation.
They provide examples from six communities, from California to Puerto Rico, to highlight how widespread and deeply rooted the problems are.
In the report, they write:
“In the Navajo Nation in the southwest, families drive for hours to carry barrels of water to meet their basic needs. In West Virginia, they drink from polluted streams. In Alabama, parents are warning their children not to play outside because their backyards are flooded with sewage. Families living in Texas border towns are worried that there is no running water to fight the fires. “
The report concludes that in rural communities, unlike cities and towns, the root cause of water poverty is the isolation of municipal water services.
In urban areas, utility providers tend to cover the costs of installing and maintaining water and sewer lines. However, for communities that are too far from these municipal systems, individual households may be responsible for installing a private well and septic tank, often with minimal technical and financial support.
Among the solutions proposed, the authors of the report argue that community initiatives that involve meaningful participation of residents are more likely to be successful because they promote collaboration between neighbors and a sense of belonging.
However, they also request additional government grants, as well as operational and technical assistance if needed.
On March 31, 2021, President Joe Biden released an infrastructure investment program – the “American Jobs Plan” – which includes $ 111 billion in water infrastructure investments.
Among its ambitions is the modernization of aging drinking water and wastewater treatment systems by scaling up existing successful programs.
In addition, the plan calls for $ 56 billion in grants and loans to “disadvantaged states, tribes, territories and communities.”
Medical News Today asked George McGraw, CEO of Dig Deep, how optimistic he was that the new investments would address concerns raised in the Dig Deep and US Water Alliance report.
“Given the magnitude of the problem with more than 2,200,000 Americans living without basic access to safe drinking water and sanitation,” he said, “there is no way that the problem will be resolved. overnight. ”
However, he also said he was encouraged by the investments Congress and the Biden administration were making to tackle the issues.
He added that the “first thing” that Congress and the administration can do to help marginalized communities such as Native Americans is to dramatically increase the level of annual federal funding for tribes and other affected communities.
However, he stressed that the funds should be made available in the form of grants rather than loans.
In addition, local government, utilities, nonprofits and community groups should be allowed to use the money as they see fit, he said, “for things like decentralized systems. or operating and maintenance costs in places where the systems cannot support themselves financially ”.
Looking ahead, many Americans are going to have to dig deeper – literally.
A study by the US Forest Service predicts that by the end of the 21st century, climate change and population growth will present serious challenges for water supplies in parts of the United States.
According to the authors, the decrease in precipitation will exclude any hope of increasing the storage capacity of reservoirs.
Among the few remaining options for dealing with severe shortages will require increasing groundwater extraction – in other words, digging deeper wells – and pumping more water from rivers, with all the environmental costs that come with it. this will result.
Of course, much of the rest of the world will face similar challenges related to global warming and increasing population.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, in the decades to come, the human right to water and sanitation may seem an increasingly distant dream for some of the most socially and economically deprived communities in the world. .