In a June 2020 article, speaking on the drinking water crisis in America, US Senator Bernie Sanders told The Guardian “America’s challenges resemble those of a developing country. It’s time for that to change.” Although the statement was made in an election year and maybe political grandstanding the question of is there any truth to Sander’s claim remains.
On 28 July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 64/292. This resolution makes access to clean, safe drinking water and sanitation an essential human right. Almost a decade earlier, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted Comment 15, which states that “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” So while the UN recognises access to drinking water as a fundamental human right, it is a concept America seems to be struggling with.
Infrastructure at a Breaking Point
The American Society of Civil Engineers is the nation’s premier engineering body responsible for grading America’s infrastructure to ensure that they are up to standard. In their last report, issued in 2017, the body gave America’s drinking water a ‘D’ grade. That grade is a result of a series of issues, symbolic of a nation that has ignored water infrastructure for too long.
In its 2017 report card, the group highlighted the parlous state of the network of pipes that are crucial in delivering water to the public. With the average lifespan of a pipe being 75-100 years, that means that many are already well past their used date after being laid down in the early to mid-20th century. Old pipes are filled with rust that can cause water to become toxic. They noted that at the current rate of replacing only 0.5% of old pipes, it would take 200 years to renew the network.
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“Every day, nearly six billion gallons of treated drinking water are lost due to leaking pipes, with an estimated 240,000 water main breaks occurring each year. It is estimated that leaky, ageing pipes are wasting 14 to 18% of each day’s treated water; the amount of clean drinking water lost every day could support 15 million households,” the report noted.
A huge reason for this is funding. According to the American Water Works Association, upgrading existing water systems and meeting the drinking water infrastructure needs of a growing population will require at least $1 trillion. Rather than spending more money though, “state and local governments have decreased spending on drinking water and wastewater by 22%” the report noted. At the federal level, there has been a $250 million increase (now at $1.45 billion) in the budget for loans to rural communities for water and wastewater projects as compared to 2019. That amount though is nowhere near enough. Indicating that water infrastructure is treated more like an afterthought.
The Example of Flint
To put that issue in context, one only needs to look at the crisis that hit Flint, Michigan in 2014. This was after the city had switched its drinking water source from Detroit to the Flint River. Along with a foul smell and brownish colour, residents complained that the water was leading to problems like rashes, hair loss and itchy skin. Despite 18 months of complaints, city officials repeatedly overlooked the issue.
When the government failed to act, citizens stepped up to raise awareness in the media. They also filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The crisis eventually forced the federal government to step in, with then-US President Barack Obama making a very controversial visit to the city.
The crisis was a result of two issues. Firstly, city officials who did not adequately test the treatment plants and the water before providing access to the city. Secondly, it was a result of ageing water pipes that were mostly made of lead. The fact that those pipes had not been replaced, proved damaging especially to the children of Flint. A paper published in the American Journal of Public Health found that “Children can absorb 40% to 50% of an oral dose of water-soluble lead compared with 3% to 10% for adults.” That has already proved deadly, with the children of Flint reported having a 75% drop in reading proficiency as a result of lead poisoning.
Paying The Price
Flint is not an isolated example. An analysis by the Natural Resources Defence Council found thousands of water systems all across America that were in violation of federal drinking water laws. Americans aren’t just paying the price with their health, but also with their wallets. A Guardian report found that water bills for households had risen 80% between 2010 and 2018 in 12 US cities. Utilities analyst Roger Colton told the paper: “the data shows that we’ve got an affordability problem in an overwhelming number of cities nationwide that didn’t exist a decade ago.”
That 80% is just an average figure. In Austin Texas, water bills have risen to a shocking 154%. According to The Guardian: “if prices in the city continue to go up at the current rate, more than four-fifths of low-income residents – defined as people living under 200% of the federal poverty line (FPL) – could face unaffordable bills by 2030.”
The effects of this jump are already being felt by America’s poor. As many are unable to pay their water bills, utility companies are turning to supply shutdowns and liens (a legal claim on the house linked to a debt which can lead to foreclosure). A 2016 survey by Food & Water Watch found that 15 million Americans had their water shut off due to unpaid bills.
The issue here is that many utility companies did not invest adequately in maintenance. As a result, city officials are forced to step in, borrow money and invest in the infrastructure and prices are bound to go up to compensate.
Unlike other developed nations, the US does not have a regulatory system for water rates (like the Ofwat in the UK). There are also no federal programs to help fund water bills for low-income households. There seems to be little political will in the US to regulate water, with the nation preferring to leave it to market forces rather than treat it as a fundamental right.
In the middle of a global pandemic, where washing hands is critical to staying safe, the lack of access to water can be a deadly thing. The privatisation of America’s water supply has not only led to high bills but also major health crises like the one in Flint. This is compounded by the rising inequality in American cities.
The Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 is a step in the right direction, but without more robust government action, access to safe drinking water still remains a dream for many. Even before a pandemic, that was a worrying sign. Now with COVID-19 wrecking every facet of American life, the lack of safe water could literally kill.