I heard about a young mother whose children were almost removed from her home because she couldn’t afford the water bill. I recall listing my home in Texas as a temporary shelter for people who had lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina flooding. And I continue to hear stories from rural America where water infrastructure is nonexistent, contaminated water is the norm, and raw sewage erupts from sewers into homes.
The increasing unaffordability of water, the disruption of families and communities, and lack of equitable water infrastructure are stark reminders that water is life. I often reflect on the words of Elder Mona Stonefish, an indigenous water leader from Canada, who reminded me “that none of us are greater than the other… because when we dip our hands in water, no one leaves any fingerprints… because the water belongs to all of us.”
We all deserve access to safe, healthy and affordable water. But water inequities persist across this country, and they are exacerbated by climate change. The manifestations of climate impacts include more drought, increased flooding, higher rates to repair neglected infrastructure, and health problems due to poor water quality. Climate change is no longer an inconvenient truth but a persistent reality for many communities across this country dealing with extreme changes in weather that can overwhelm water infrastructure. This new climate reality is hitting hard, particularly in low-income communities, communities of color and those living in climate vulnerable locations.
In a recently released national briefing paper, An Equitable Water Future, the US Water Alliance details how certain segments of society are more likely to live in low-quality housing, lack insurance, and possess fewer resources to cope with and recover from disasters. Those communities – which are disproportionately comprised of people of color – deal with the brunt of climate change impacts that extend way beyond the infrastructure. The ripple effects of climate change harm human health, hurt local economies and can tear asunder a community’s social cohesion.
So how do we face our new reality and foster community resilience in the face of climate change? One word: transformation. Transformation can be defined as changing form, appearance, nature, or character. In the water sector, this means changing our thinking, our policies and our physical and social infrastructure to both explicitly account for climate change and better reflect the needs and priorities of constituencies that until now have been ignored. The type of transformation we need must occur at all levels of government and in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. The briefing paper illuminates examples of how that change is occurring in fits and starts across the country, but these early efforts are just a beginning.
At The Kresge Foundation, our vision for climate-resilient and equitable water systems involves systems that are responsive to climate change, engage low-income communities in large-scale water planning, embed climate change into planning processes, and create paths for investments to build water infrastructure where needs are the greatest. The US Water Alliance, along with many of its partners, is critical to transforming the sector. It will take municipal and utility professionals, community-based leaders, scientists, engineers, water experts, policy makers and philanthropy to achieve true transformation.
We can begin by broadening the composition and cultural competency of influencers and decision-makers. It’s important that planners, operators, engineers, municipal leaders and utility managers understand and listen to community concerns, and that the community gain a better understanding of the context and constraints of the municipal side. With this enhanced understanding, my hope is that future decisions better reflect the input of impacted communities – accounting for social and economic factors alongside complicated water models and data.
Policy decision-making by water utilities and municipalities must include representation from low-income communities, communities of color, and those on the front lines of climate change impacts.
Transformation requires deepening our examination of ourselves and our role in water governance, funding, and resource distribution at all levels. I challenge us all to start by examining our individual biases; deconstructing institutional racism in the public, private and philanthropic sector; and reforming the policies and planning processes that perpetuate siloed decision making and fail to serve all community members equitably.
And most importantly, we must explicitly consider what we value, who we value and where we direct resources — realizing accountability to all of our ‘customers’ is critical.
I am confident that we have the intellect, the resources and the creativity to operationalize the framework and foundation that has been offered by the US Water Alliance in An Equitable Water Future.
I’m sure we won’t see fingerprints in the water anytime soon. But I do expect to see the fingerprints of water leaders across this country on a scaling up and transformation to achieve climate-resilient, equitable water systems for all.