A little over a year ago, the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) revealed a seemingly simple system for fighting Covid-19: soap, water, and about 20 seconds of scrubbing should help keep the virus from spreading. But what if you live in a home where the water from your tap is brown and smells like rotten eggs, or where water doesn’t come from the tap at all?
Jean Holloway has spent years working with communities in the US states of Delaware and eastern Maryland where this is a fact of life. Some of these residents have never been able to use the water in their homes because of contaminants. Still others have seen their water shut off because they couldn’t pay their bills during the worst of the pandemic.
“To live there is kind of like – there’s a quote about ‘lives of quiet desperation,’” says Holloway, a state manager at the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, speaking of one neighbourhood where residents can only use bottled water. “There’s not a lot of morale. And along comes Covid and these people, they need the water even more.”
An estimated two million Americans lack access to running water, indoor plumbing, or wastewater treatment. More than twelve percent of US households could not afford their water bills as of 2017, the same year a study projected that that number could triple by 2022. According to a 2019 report, Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing; Black and Latino households are twice as likely.
Meanwhile, more than a year of Covid-19 – of constant hand-washing and bottled water shortages, of shuttered laundromats, community centres, and schools, and of disproportionate death and disease among minority communities – has made it abundantly clear how essential clean water access is.
“The pandemic is emphasising the importance of water for public health and how crucial it is to protect it, and that it goes beyond the pandemic,” says Mary Grant, director of the Public Water for All campaign at Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit. “It’s about flushing toilets, washing hands, cooking food, washing clothes. It should be fundamental that everyone has access to water. It’s a basic human right, and it’s necessary to live a life with dignity.”
Now, change could come in the form of the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act, S.914, which will authorise $35 billion (£24.6bn) to upgrade American water infrastructure over the next five years. The bill passed in the Senate 89 to 2 votes at the end of April, and appears to face little opposition in the House.
“With more Americans spending time at home during the pandemic, it’s unacceptable that years of failure to make adequate investments in our water infrastructure has led to a status quo where millions of Americans lack basic access to clean, safe drinking water or functioning sewer systems,” says Senator Tammy Duckworth, sponsor of the bill, in an emailed statement. She has written she was driven to act after seeing a mother hold up a baby bottle full of dirty brown water during a House Oversight Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, where cost-cutting measures led to high levels of toxic lead in drinking water.
“Now is the time for federal funding that will help us recover from the effects of the pandemic and to make sure that every American, no matter the colour of their skin or their zip code, has access to clean, safe water,” Duckworth added.
The reason such a bill is needed at all arises from a paradoxical contradiction: though US drinking water and sanitation standards have grown more and more stringent for nearly 50 years, federal investment in water systems has not followed suit. Federal investment in water infrastructure peaked in 1977, and has only declined since. As a result, neglected pipes are leaking, breaking, and leaching contaminants into America’s taps — and EPA data shows that these subpar systems are 40 percent more likely in communities with more residents of colour. A push for privatisation of water systems in the 1980s, meanwhile, promised to make water bills cheaper, a claim that hasn’t held water.