This article originally appeared in Water Quality Products magazine April 2020 issue as "Digging Into Water Access"
DigDeep and the U.S. Water Alliance recently completed the first comprehensive national study of the water-access gap. Over two years, researchers analyzed all available federal data and fanned out across the U.S. to examine conditions in six communities representative of the water challenges faced nationwide. WQP Associate Editor Cristina Tuser asked Zoe Roller about the future of water access as it relates to vulnerable communities.
Cristina Tuser: How can vulnerable communities lacking access to clean water and safe sanitation be supported?
Zoe Roller: Communities living without access need both immediate aid and long-term solutions. Strategies like water delivery can address communities’ urgent day-to-day needs while more permanent solutions are developed. In some communities, grassroots organizations like food banks and faith-based groups are already providing direct aid, and they need more resources and support.
Some communities lacking water access are well-suited to traditional centralized infrastructure but need more funding and technical capacity to get connected. Other communities need non-traditional infrastructure alternatives because they are geographically remote or have environmental challenges. These areas need support to develop and pilot strategies like decentralized wastewater treatment, community water kiosks or water reuse systems. Overall, it is important to make sure that communities themselves have a voice in decision-making around water access. Many communities are already developing promising solutions to water access challenges, and they need outside support and funding to scale them up.
Tuser: What are some key common misconceptions about water access this report dispels?
Roller: The biggest misconception is that everyone in the U.S. has access to running water and indoor plumbing and that water access is only an issue in lower-income parts of the world. We wanted to bring attention to the fact that while most Americans have water access, there are still millions of people living without it. Some communities are facing water-borne illnesses that were thought to be eradicated here a century ago.
Another misconception is that water access challenges only affect a small group of people that choose to live off-grid in remote areas. But they affect whole towns and regions and it is often the result of historical discriminatory practices that made it harder for vulnerable communities to develop infrastructure. While some of these communities are remote, others are really close to cities. People might expect that water access conditions are improving over time, but we found that for some communities, services are deteriorating. We visited communities where water and sanitation access has gotten worse in recent years due to aging infrastructure, lack of funding, climate change and water contamination. Census data shows that the number of people without indoor plumbing has increased in six states in recent years.
Tuser: Communication with participants was a key part of this research; tell me about the role interviewing members of each community played in shaping this study.
Roller: We interviewed people that are living without water and sanitation access because high-level statistics cannot tell us the whole story of how access challenges affect people’s daily lives and how they respond. We wanted to hear from residents because they are experts on this issue. We heard that it is difficult for people to seek help with their water access challenges; some are concerned about their immigration status, and others feel a stigma around admitting that they do not have running water. We heard about how living without access makes it difficult to eat healthy food, get children to school or become financially stable.
Tuser: What is the future of clean water access?
Roller: The future of clean water access will be more equitable, resilient and decentralized than our current systems. We need more options to make sure that water is accessible and affordable to everyone. Our regulatory and funding framework for water systems is focused on traditional, centralized infrastructure. You are either connected to a municipal water or wastewater utility, or if you live in a rural area, you are responsible for your own well and septic system. This creates a financial burden for lower-income people. We need service options that are somewhere in between to serve communities where these options are not economically or environmentally viable.
Zoe Roller is senior program manager for the U.S. Water Alliance. Roller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Responses have been edited for clarity.