Water access is a problem in the U.S., affecting minority and rural groups the most

The Global Water Alliance symposium focused on challenges to clean-water access and underscored that the problem isn’t confined to the developing world.

Mustafa Santiago Ali (left) discusses water system vulnerabilities in the U.S. with Zoe Roller (middle) and Emily Kutil (right) at the 12th Annual Global Water Alliance Conference. (Dana Bate/WHYY)

Mustafa Santiago Ali (left) discusses water system vulnerabilities in the U.S. with Zoe Roller (middle) and Emily Kutil (right) at the 12th Annual Global Water Alliance Conference. (Dana Bate/WHYY)

When it comes to a lack of clean water, many Americans think of the problem as one confined to the developing world. And, indeed, of the 2 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to safe drinking water, the majority live outside the United States.

But as speakers at the 12th Annual Global Water Alliance Conference highlighted this week at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, some of the same challenges to water access in developing countries exist here as well.

“The kinds of conditions that people are living with are very similar,” said Zoe Roller, senior program manager at the U.S. Water Alliance, “like people having to collect water in buckets and take them home because they don’t have running water, or having wastewater going directly into their backyard because they’re not connected to a system.”

About 1.6 million Americans don’t have running water or indoor plumbing. Many people also don’t have access to adequate wastewater treatment, meaning tainted water pollutes their groundwater and communities.

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Roller’s organization found that in Lowndes County, Alabama, only 20 percent of the population is connected to a sewer system. As a result, people live with raw sewage regularly overflowing into their yards or backing up into their homes.

Water insecurity predominates in rural communities, but it also disproportionately affects communities of color.

“Particularly African-Americans and Native Americans in this country are more likely to experience challenges with access to water,” Roller said.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president at the National Wildlife fund, echoed Roller’s concerns.

“There’s a disproportionate set of factors that are going on for communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous populations,” he said. “Whether it is their meaningful involvement in the process or what they’re being exposed to.”

The conference’s focus on clean water, sanitation and hygiene — often referred to by those in the trade as WASH — comes as the United Nations works toward its goal of providing everyone with access to clean water by 2030. The emphasis on clean water by the U.N. has prodded many developing countries to prioritize the issue, though not all. Roller cautioned that the United States could move in the opposite direction from the rest of the world.

“We’re really at risk of backsliding,” she said. “There has been a decline in federal funding for water infrastructure. And that’s especially hard for smaller rural systems, where they may not have the tax base to expand their systems.”

This week, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler cited unsafe water as the most important public-health issue, though he did so in minimizing the immediate threat posed by climate change.

Ali said climate change is closely tied with water quality, however, and ultimately will exacerbate the deep divisions between the water haves and have-nots in this country.

“We are going to have less and less fresh water,” he said. “Those who have the ability to protect it will. Those who don’t will be left out.”

He also pointed to numerous environmental rollbacks by the Trump administration, including the Waters of the U.S. rule and regulations on dumping coal ash, that would further endanger the integrity of water sources.

“If you say that water is life, if you say that water is important, then your actions should actually live up to the words that are coming out of your mouth,” Ali said.

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