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OPINION: Equal water access must be a core part of our climate response

by Colette Pichon Battle and Monica Lewis-Patrick
Saturday, 27 February 2021 11:00 GMT

Harris County workers carry water bottles to hand to those who are in need after winter weather caused food and clean water shortage in Houston, Texas, U.S. February 19, 2021. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Colette Pichon Battle and Monica Lewis-Patrick

Colette Pichon Battle is the founder and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy. Monica Lewis-Patrick is president and CEO at We the People of Detroit

Families were melting snow to flush toilets in Oklahoma. Doctors and nurses were relying on hand sanitizer instead of soap and water. Power went off for millions and 58 people died as a result of last week’s severe winter storm, all in the middle of the global pandemic.

In Texas, over a million people are still waiting for clean water. In Louisiana, it’s a quarter of the population. In Jackson, Mississippi, senior citizens have been standing in line to fill buckets and wastebaskets.

This humanitarian crisis was not inevitable nor felt equally by everyone in the storm-battered South. Black and brown communities, often hit hardest by storms, and left dealing with the aftermath the longest, are not surprised to bear the brunt of this disaster.

Our hearts go out to those that dont have the electricity to boil their water despite “boil water alerts” still being issued right now. And those that can’t turn on the taps to wash their hands during a pandemic where the first line of defense is clean hands.

Detroiters know what it’s like to live without safe water and sanitation, and so do communities on the Gulf coast that have been hit by one extreme weather event after another.

We know the nightmare doesn’t end when the weather turns. Families that had pipes burst are now having to worry about clean up and repairs, sky high water bills, mold growth and insurance claims. Many, in areas that are still reeling from prior disasters.

Scientists have warned us for years that climate change will bring more extreme weather, including snow and ice. Yet, utilities, regulators and government leaders failed to prepare, chronically underinvesting in “actual critical infrastructure”  and leaving communities vulnerable to these inhumane conditions.

The breakdowns in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee and more are just the latest failures of the ailing water system that has left people sick, stressed and strapped from Flint, Michigan to Visalia, California. Even before these winter storms, at least two million Americans were living without running water and flush toilets. Millions more are at risk of having their water service shutoff, unable to pay water bills as rates rise exponentially.

Here, in the richest country in the world, 30 million people are served by water systems that don’t meet basic safety standards, whether from lead pipes, arsenic-laced wells, or outdated treatment plants.

Our aging infrastructure is a nation-wide crisis, yet federal water spending has dropped by 74% since the 1970s, leaving ratepayers to foot the bill for necessary upgrades, or, forgoing them all together and setting the stage for both sudden and slow-moving disasters.

Like the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, water problems disproportionately impact the poor and communities of color.

Our water and energy grids are inextricably linked. You can’t treat water or get it to people's homes or hospitals without power. In order to keep our communities safe, we have to make both systems more resilient in the face of climate change and other emergencies.

This calls for deep and long-term investments to upgrade physical (and social) infrastructure to the actual level of climate readiness required to address the global climate crisis. We must invest in energy sources that don’t pollute our air and waters. We must build infrastructure to withstand stronger storms and solve public health problems

It’s time to reverse decades of denial and divestment in America’s communities, and start working on prevention and preparation. As the Biden administration ramps up relief efforts, it must prioritize communities that have been living on the fenceline of fossil fuels and other heavy industry, and left vulnerable to storms, flooding and extreme heat.

We welcome the administration’s commitment to focus federal climate spending in frontline communities, and urge them to invest in the human right to clean water and sanitation alongside community-controlled clean and sustainable energy.

Equitable water access must be a core part of our climate change response, just as it’s central to COVID relief and recovery.