Millions of Americans are unable to pay their water bills and face water cut-offs or eviction from their homes as a result, according to a Special Guardian Investigation led by journalist Nina Lakhani. Two million people in the U.S. today already lack access to running water and basic indoor plumbing, with at least 15 million people having had their supplies cut off due to water-bill debts. In 12 cities across the U.S., water prices have increased by 80% in the last decade. With water currently unaffordable in 1 in 10 households and estimates that this will rise to 3 in 10 households by 2025, it is clear that a water crisis is unfolding across the U.S.
“Water should never be treated as a commodity or a luxury for the benefit of the wealthy,” said water justice advocate Mary Grant of Food and Water Watch, in response to the Guardian’s research. Speaking on the Guardian Podcast Today in Focus, Lakhani pointed out that it is black-majority communities who are most affected by water prices in the U.S. This speaks to a crisis that intersects multiple forms of inequality in the U.S., including income, racial, and environmental disparities. Indeed, Sociology Professor Stephen Gasteyer of Michigan State University argues that “it’s a symptom of the inequalities and segregation problems we have in the U.S.”
90% of water utility companies in the United States are state-owned. These companies serve 87% of the country’s population. This makes the unaffordability of water in the U.S. even more shocking. In all 12 cities studied in the Guardian’s investigation, over 99.9% of people living below 50% of the Federal Poverty Line live in neighbourhoods with unaffordable water bills. A report conducted by Food and Water Watch in 2016 found that 15 million people had experienced water cut-offs at some point because they had fallen behind on their monthly payments. Along with Water Liens, where people’s properties are auctioned off to the highest private investment bidder to pay off these bills, cut-offs are legal measures publicly owned water companies regularly deploy as punitive measures against so called “delinquent customers.”
The austere measures enforced by publicly owned water companies – in addition to escalating water prices – are rooted in systemic and structural racism, according to the findings of WaterColour, a study commissioned by the NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund. Millions of African Americans moved to rust belt cities in the 20th Century Great Migration from the American South. Ageing water systems served massive populations, with pipe renovations prioritised for white-majority communities during Segregation.
These water systems relied on revenue extracted from these large populations to be maintained. However, cities such as Cleveland have seen a 60% population decline over the past 50 years. Therefore, water costs fall on the shoulders of fewer paying customers. Combined with an 80% reduction in federal funding to water companies since 1977 and no existing regulator to monitor these companies’ actions, a severe water crisis has emerged; one that has acutely affected African-American communities, courtesy of segregationist city planning and policies. And now, the climate crisis has begun to play its part, increasing adaptation costs are placing strains on water sources due to increased flooding and drought risk.
Though by no means the only indicator of the gross inequalities that exist in the United States, the current water crisis is one of the most shameful. During the current coronavirus pandemic, in which water access is even more essential for maintaining personal hygiene, campaigners have forced city governments to change their strategies. Baltimore, for example, in which houses were being auctioned due to debts as small as $350, has introduced the Water Accountability and Equity Act, which discounts bills based on affordability. The city is also implementing a programme whereby people can subscribe to a payment for 1 year before having their debts cancelled. Though this progress may be welcomed, there is still far to go.
The actions of Detroit’s Water Department is a stark reminder of this. Despite the current pandemic, officials have refused to re-connect those who have been disconnected from water supplies for over one year. 140,000 households in the city have had their water disconnected since 2014. Simultaneously, the city government has permitted the multi-national conglomerates Coca Cola and Pepsi to have access to its water supplies despite the former racking up a $287,250 water debt over a six-month period in 2017. These companies have proceeded to sell the city’s water for 133 times the price they bought it for, with water bottle sales up 57% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Activists, politicians, and lawmakers argue that such vast inequalities in water accessibility represent an unconscionable violation of basic human rights. Some hope may be placed in the Water Act currently making its way through Congress, driven by Senator Bernie Sanders (D) and Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (D). Yet federal water justice campaigns are, sadly, conforming to the partisan political divisions that are crippling America’s law-making process. 100% of the Act’s active advocates in Washington are Democrats. With $35 billion every year (for the next 20 years) estimated to be required to ensure every American has access to clean water, a bipartisan federal intervention must be made to address America’s water – and human rights – crisis. While the current federal administration remains in power, such an intervention remains a pipe dream.