A new report prepared by US non-profits DigDeep and the US Water Alliance, Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States: A National Action Plan, reveals that clean, reliable running water and safe sanitations are out of reach for some of the most vulnerable communities in the United States.
The report is a comprehensive analysis of water and sanitation access in the country; while most US citizens take it for granted, some communities did not receive adequate water infrastructure when the US made investments in such systems in the past, in part due to discriminatory practices within some infrastructure development initiatives. Though they may have ceased, their effects continue to be felt today: those affected are low-income people in rural areas, African-Americans, tribal communities and immigrants, leading to a hidden water and sanitation crisis that threatens their health and well-being. Declined federal funding in recent decades reduced the support available to build and maintain water systems, which now falls on state and local governments; but such investments are not always feasible for vulnerable communities.
In the US there isn’t a single entity collecting data on the scope of this problem, making it difficult to track the challenge and develop solutions. The report analyses American Community Survey data from the US Census Bureau, which has limitations (for example does not include whether households have waste water services) to explore the scope of the problem using quantitative data analysis. Furthermore, it refines the research looking in detail at the problem in six regions, using on-the-ground qualitative research: the Central Valley of California, the Navajo Nation, the Texas colonias, rural counties in the South, Appalachia, and Puerto Rico.
Finally, four principles and priorities for action are proposed, to achieve the goal of universal water access:
- Reimagine de solution. The first step is recognising water access as a crisis. Interim measures are crucial while permanent solutions are developed. Some cases are suited for centralised infrastructure, while in small and remote communities it is logistically unfeasible, so alternatives to traditional infrastructure should be developed.
- Deploy resources strategically. Although in theory water systems should be financially self-sufficient, it is out of reach for many systems and homeowners who need additional support, in the form of government funding, as well as funding options for household-level infrastructure. Philanthropic and private WASH funding can be an important supplement to public funding.
- Build community power. Reliable data can be used to bring visibility to communities, and make it easier to identify communities at risk. Community leadership is key, with meaningful participation as an important step to building systems for everyone. It would also be important to establish relationships between communities facing similar challenges, to enhance their visibility.
- Foster creative collaboration. Water access is part of a context where communities experience other socioeconomic and environmental issues, lacking adequate housing, hospitals, schools, etc. Collaboration can result in solutions that address multiple challenges at once. Consolidation of systems should be pursued wherever it can lead to better outcomes. Moreover, communities that lack water services are candidates for new technological solutions because they do not have old systems that need retrofitting.