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World Water Day 2020: Community Resilience in a Time of (Climate) Crisis

Katy Lackey and Zoe Roller, Senior Program Managers, US Water Alliance | March 23, 2020

True resilience means ensuring that all communities are prepared for a changing climate. As we head into World Water Day 2020, preparedness has taken on a whole new meaning. Over the past few weeks Covid-19 has rapidly morphed from a blip on some people’s radar to a global crisis dominating every aspect of our lives. No one is untouched by this rapidly evolving pandemic. Even if you belong to a low-risk group, your actions and choices hold potentially devastating ripple effects across the globe. Business as usual will not suffice, as everyone is called on to flatten the curve. Every voice, every interaction, and every decision matters. It’s a defining moment, when collective action is necessary to ensure our future. 
 
While moving in vastly different ways and on different time scales, there are the ghostly similarities between the climate crisis and the coronavirus. The unfolding response to the current public health crisis begs some questions about our far slower, less urgent response to the climate crisis. Are we willing to take proactive measures to forestall the crises already devastating some communities? Do we recognize the impacts already here? How are we helping those most vulnerable? Will we act swiftly, dramatically, and in coordination to mitigate the worst yet to come?
 
World Water Day is an annual reminder of the 2.2 billion people around the globe living without access to safe water and sanitation. It is a day to celebrate global progress toward Sustainable Development Goal #6: water and sanitation for all by 2030. Achieving this goal is inherently tied to our ability to adapt to and mitigate climate change, this year’s World Water Day theme. 
 
For many people in the United States, access to safe water and sanitation isn’t a pressing concern. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve used affordable, clean, and easily accessible water more times than you can count today. For the most part, Americans are used to turning on a tap with safe flowing water whenever we want. But this is not the reality for everyone. 
 
In fact, over two million people in our country lack access to clean running water, indoor plumbing, or a working toilet. The recent study by the US Water Alliance and DigDeep, Closing the Water Access Gap,  found that lower-income people, communities of color, tribal communities, and rural areas disproportionately lack of access. The inequity across the nation is stark. Too often, these communities are forgotten, neglected, or invisible to the systems and policies that serve the rest of us every day. 
 
The Navajo Nation, a sovereign nation that stretches across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, is a stark example of what the water access challenge looks like. An estimated 30 percent of residents lack access to running water, and many also lack sanitation. In parts of New Mexico, some residents must drive 40 miles to haul water home for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Some households have less than ten gallons of water stored at home at any given time and use as little as two to three gallons a day (while the average American uses 88 gallons per day). Under these circumstances, residents struggle to balance water needs for hygiene, drinking water, and preparing food. Lack of water access is a public health issue under normal circumstances, and it is all the more dire in a time when frequent hand washing is one of our only defenses against the spread of a pandemic.
 
Climate change adds another layer of complexity to water access challenges. Most climate impacts are felt through water, from increasingly frequent storms, flooding, and sea level rise to drought. In communities across the country, our infrastructure is pushed to the breaking point by too much water, too little water, insufficient water quality, or natural disasters. Climate change exacerbates existing challenges that face water systems, like affordability, water quality, and aging infrastructure. What does this all mean for a community already facing water-related challenges? 
 
For communities that lack water access, climate change impacts intersect with and compound existing infrastructure challenges. In the past, many Navajo Nation residents used surface water for their water supply. However, surface water on the Navajo Nation is estimated to have decreased by 98 percent over the course of the twentieth century, due to rising temperatures and declining rainfall. As a result, residents must now rely on groundwater that is contaminated by abandoned uranium mines, putting their health at risk.
 
At the other end of the spectrum are rural areas in the South, like Lowndes County, Alabama, or the Mississippi Delta areas, where too much water overwhelms wastewater systems. Many residents are not connected to municipal sewer systems, and new septic systems are often expensive for low-income households. Instead, some residents use PVC pipes to remove wastewater away from homes, a practice known as “straight-piping.” Others use septic systems that are in need of repair. As rainfall becomes more intense and erratic, wastewater overflows are becoming more common and back up into residents’ homes and yards.
 
Nowhere are the effects of climate change on water and sanitation access clearer than in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria left a million people without power or running water for months and flooded septic systems. In the aftermath of the hurricane, people relied on interim solutions such as bottled water, trucked water, and rainwater harvesting. As they rebuild, many water systems are installing solar power systems to ensure that residents will be more resilient to future storms. 
 
As resources become more scarce and water quality is further threatened, low income and communities of color will suffer the most. When extreme events and flooding hit, these communities are also least likely to be able to weather the storm or access resources to recover. The UN states that “adapting to the effects of climate change will protect health and save lives.” This couldn’t be more important for those who already lack access to clean water and adequate sanitation services. Building resilience in these communities is about building capacity, but it is also about social cohesion across socio-economic strata. How the water sector and the nation responds will determine an individual’s community resilience, but it will also determine overall climate resilience. As COVID-19 has vividly demonstrated, people are only as safe as the most vulnerable members of a community.  Climate change affects us all, and everyone has to view it and manage it accordingly.
 
The good news is, there are actionable steps to take. In the spirit of World Water Day, there are things that can be done now to close the water access gap and improve community resilience in the face of climate change.
 

World Water Day Message 1: 

No one can afford to wait. Climate policy makers must put water at the heart of action plans now.
 
Key Action: Expand and refocus federal funding programs. 
Water and sanitation access is important for every community, especially in the face of changing climate. The federal government should expand funding sources like State Revolving Funds, Community Development Block Grants, and USDA-Rural Development funding. The funds can be made more accessible by offering larger proportions of grants (versus loans) and including operations and maintenance funding.
 
Key Action: Revamp Census questions on water access and centralize federal data. 
Knowledge is power. Our study found that a lack of access to water and sanitation services is higher than expected, but likely underreported. Improved data collection will provide a more accurate assessment of which communities lack access and where to target programs. The Census Bureau should expand its American Community Survey question on complete plumbing access in occupied households to again include toilets (removed in 2016), and add questions on wastewater services, water quality, and cost.
 

World Water Day Message 2: 

Water can help fight climate change. There are sustainable, affordable and scalable water and sanitation solutions.
 
Key Action: Support community-based and decentralized alternatives to traditional infrastructure.
Some communities that lack water access are too small and remote to support centralized water systems. Expanding financing mechanisms and options for service delivery and management that are somewhere in-between municipal utilities and individual systems, such as small-scale wastewater systems that serve a cluster of homes, or community-scale approaches like water trucking or household filtering. Providing an array of solutions will help communities build resilience.
 
Key Action: Support water and wastewater system consolidation that benefits communities.
Some small water and wastewater systems lack the capacity to provide quality services, due to declining funding, shrinking tax bases, and understaffing. Other communities lack any infrastructure at all, but may be located in proximity to functioning water systems. In these cases, consolidating systems or building knowledge- and resource-sharing partnerships can improve access and build economies of scale. Consolidation is a spectrum that can encompass multiple utilities merging to form a single system; areas that lack service connecting to a nearby system; or systems partnering on management or pooling resources. 
 

World Water Day Message 3: 

Everyone has a role to play. 
 
Key Action: Define water access as a crisis. 
Lack of water access is a public health crisis. All people deserve access to clean, safe water as their basic human right, and that water and sanitation access challenges must be solved immediately, especially as climate change exacerbates the challenge. Everyone can pass on the message to elected officials that water access is a top priority in building healthy and resilient communities.
 

On this World Water Day, tackling the global water crisis is also about closing the water access gap in America. It is about addressing immediate needs for those most vulnerable while also enacting forward thinking policies to avert the climate crisis. The more resilient our communities are in the face of climate change, the more prepared we will be as a nation.