Climate change, government mismanagement, and ultimately poor infrastructure cause water crises all around the globe.
Water, water, and water. Most of the time we don’t have to worry about this word. We take this rudimentary resource for granted. Despite our complacency, however, multiple factors such as climate change, poor infrastructure, and government mismanagement restrict the public’s access to clean water. As a result, many people in the U.S. and around the world, such as those in communities like Flint, Michigan, are drinking dirty water which can have a wide range of severe health effects.
Although for a long time, rivers were a reliable clean source of water for communities, climate change is now starting to disrupt the precipitation that is crucial to sustaining these water sources (1). Even the wettest regions of our world are starting to face the effects of climate change. A quote from Jon Heggie of National Geographic explains the peculiar reason why the wet regions of our Earth have difficulty capturing sufficient amounts of water. Heggie writes, “[W]hile the wettest regions…are getting wetter, the drier areas are getting drier, and there are some seasonal shifts in water patterns—rising temperatures mean the snowmelt that feeds many rivers begins and ends earlier, contributing to summer water shortages. Even where precipitation is projected to increase…the trend is toward more intense concentrations of rainfall that are difficult to capture and use (1).” These heavier rainstorms in wet areas can increase surface runoff allowing pollutants to contaminate clean drinking water (2). Another major consequence of climate change is warmer air temperatures. Warmer air can hold more moisture than cold air, which allows more water to evaporate from local water sources. This diminishes the water supply and has detrimental impacts on local communities (2).
There are many factors that contribute to this scarcity of clean water, the most prominent being government mismanagement. In the US, government mismanagement most largely impacts low-income, African American communities. One of the most well-known examples of government mismanagement is shown by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan in the United States. Flint, Michigan, is a city with a majority African American population and 40% of its residents live below the poverty line (3). In 2013, the city decided to switch water sources from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River in order to save costs (3). However, problems soon arose when Flint residents began complaining about the peculiar taste and smell of the water in their homes. Officials clearly didn’t foresee the long-term consequences of this water switch. Through extensive testing, E Coli, a dangerous bacteria, was detected in the river’s waters (3). In response, the city officials proposed a “quick fix” solution, deciding to increase chlorine concentration in the water to purify the bacteria in the water (3). However, the opposite of the intended effect happened. In fact, the level of total trihalomethanes exceeded normal levels and was found to violate the Safe Drinking Water Act (3). In the following months, a back-and-forth ensued between local officials, state officials, and water regulators.
Ultimately, a nonpartisan commission of state investigators concluded that environmental injustice and a lack of government oversight were the primary factors in this tragedy. “The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigency, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations” (4). Furthermore, the report concluded that the Flint water crisis was a case of environmental injustice, as the predominantly African-American population was not privy to the same treatment as other Americans were when it came to managing environmental resources. Flint is only one example of a multitude of cases of poor government management and environmental injustice. In 2017, 1.23 million people died globally as a result of drinking unsafe water sources hence it was the 13th most common cause of death that year. The impacts of unclean water on communities have had a disproportionate impact on poor and developing nations such as communities in sub-Saharan Africa according to Our World in Data (5). In these low-income countries, water access and sanitation issues are even more prevalent; 6% of deaths in these nations are caused by unclean drinking water. Chad has a shockingly record-low water access rate of 5.59% since at least a quarter of the population must walk 30 minutes or more to retrieve water, as noted by National Geographic (5,6).
A graph by Our World in Data from the IHME in 2019 shows the death rates from unsafe water sources by geographical area (5).
Specifically, on the issues of government corruption and racial inequities, experts say there is a clear instigator of such problems: poor infrastructure. As Professor David Sedlak of the UC Berkeley Water Center concludes, “Our reluctance to invest means that we allow our water systems to deteriorate until they nearly fail and invest in them only after the public decides that the status quo is unacceptable…We have seen this pattern before—and the present-day warning for us all is that the past is often prologue.” (7) Thus, all answers point to an urgent call for new funding and renovation to replace decades-old, or even century-old, water systems across the globe.
1. Heggie, J. (2020, August 12). Why is America running out of water? Retrieved from National Geographic website: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/partner-content-americas-looming-water-crisis
2. Fecht, S. (2019, September 23). How Climate Change Impacts Our Water. Retrieved from State of the Planet website: https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/09/23/climate-change-impacts-water/
3. Fecht, S. (2019, September 23). How Climate Change Impacts Our Water. Retrieved from State of the Planet website: https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/09/23/climate-change-impacts-water/
4. Davis, M. M., Kolb, C., Reynolds, L., Rothstein, E., & Sikkema, K. (2016). Flint Water Advisory Task Final Report. In michigan.gov (pp. 5, 54). State of Michigan. Retrieved from State of Michigan website: https://www.michigan.gov/-/media/Project/Websites/formergovernors/Folder6/FWATF_FINAL_REPORT_21March2016.pdf?rev=284b9e42c7c840019109eb73aaeedb68
5. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2021) – “Clean Water and Sanitation”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/clean-water-sanitation‘ [Online Resource]
6. Water Inequality | National Geographic Society. (2015). Retrieved from Nationalgeographic.org website: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/water-inequality
7. Sedlak, D. (2019, March 3). How Development of America’s Water Infrastructure Has Lurched Through History. Retrieved from Pewtrusts.org website: https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/trend/archive/spring-2019/how-development-of-americas-water-infrastructure-has-lurched-through-history