Water access is a fundamental human right and critical for sustainable and healthy communities. Although it might be taken for granted, research suggests that it is not universal in high-income countries. A recent study by Katie Meehan from King’s College London and colleagues delves into disparities in access to piped water in the United States, reports the NewScientist.
Based on data from the American Community Survey collected by the US Census Bureau from 2013 to 2017, an estimated 471,000 households or 1.1 million people lack a piped water connection, referred to as “plumbing poverty”. And 73% of those households are in cities, close to the water network. They include some of the wealthiest cities in the country: New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have the largest number of people without piped water.
The study found a strong connection between plumbing poverty and income inequality. Households experiencing plumbing poverty are more likely to be headed by people of colour, earn a lower income, rent their residence, live in mobile homes, and put a higher portion of their income towards housing.
The authors argue that urban water insecurity reflects disparities of race and class. While urban water management and security are usually considered a supply issue, they propose an alternative paradigm they refer to as the housing–water nexus. It suggests that gaps in urban water provision are a product of structural inequality; they are not random but social and systemic in nature.
The global North is not immune to problems of water insecurity. In fact, 2017 data from the UN-WHO joint Monitoring Programme indicate 99% of the US population had “safely managed” drinking water services. But the most disadvantaged groups hide behind those national averages, and the pandemic has put in the spotlight a water affordability crisis that affects millions of urban residents, with cities across the country suspending shutoffs in an effort to safeguard public health.
Meehan and her colleagues call for future research and policies for sustainable water access that look into social inequality at the housing–water nexus if we want to achieve the goal of “water for all” in the United States.