Water justice relates to a vast array of diverse issues. Here’s a sampling to start you thinking about the intersections between water and many other social and environmental justice issues. This list is by no means conclusive. Explore the water issues that are relevant to your area! Learn more on at Resource List: Water Justice.
Food production often uses a lot of water. Plants need water to grow, and intensive water use upstream decreases the water available for communities living downstream. Water is often used as a vehicle for distributing fertilizers and pesticides, and runoff pollutes the watersheds. Farm workers, who are often low-income immigrants and people of color, are most highly exposed to these toxins. The costs of the cheaper food are often born by these people in the form of health care costs. While farm workers literally watch cheap, good quality water go by their homes and schools in irrigation ditches, they must drink ground water contaminated by wasteful, outmoded agricultural practices from crop and dairy production.
The connections between water and energy production may not be immediately obvious. Traditional water and wastewater systems with miles of pipes, pumping stations, and treatment plants use significant amounts of energy, while small, localized treatment uses less. Energy can also be recovered from sewerage. As much as 25-35 percent of all electricity generated in California, Oregon, and Washington is used to move water from the environment to major urban areas and for agricultural use. Many methods of extracting fuels are water intensive, including mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining and natural gas hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).
MTR involves clearing the land, blasting the surface to more easily access coal, and digging out the coal. The mining waste is dumped into nearby valleys, burying more than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia to date. Coal sludge, contains toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, and chromium, damaging the watersheds for the people of Appalachia. Sludge dams are notoriously leaky and breaches can be catastrophic.
Fracking, a natural gas extraction technique that involves injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals underground to release the gas in rock formations, has increased in recent years. Many people are concerned about groundwater contamination and the depletion of groundwater sources and aquatic habitat. Like MTR, wastewater associated with this process is stored in open pits and can cause illness or death to animals that live in or consume this water, either directly or through contamination from leaks. Both processes involve large-scale clearing of the land, which increases erosion, runoff, and threats of flooding.
Inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation sickens and kills thousands of people every day and impoverishes the lives of many more. According to the Water and Sanitation Collaborative Council, fecal matter causes the majority of illness in the world, and these illnesses can take away appetite, prevent nutrient absorption through diarrhea and vomiting, and ultimately lead to malnutrition.
Conventional wastewater systems are also conveying toxic chemicals put down household and storm drains out into the environment. These chemicals are entering our water systems and compromising wildlife.
After the BP oil disaster in the Gulf Coast, the quality of people’s lives in the Gulf Coast region has been seriously impacted. The people participating in cleanup efforts were exposed to toxic chemicals in both the oil and the dispersants. The three main sources of income – seafood, tourism, and the oil industry – were all devastated by the oil. People are unable to pay their leases and mortgages because of loss of work. The full extent of the long-term impact is still unknown, but the experience of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska shows us that they are great.
Bottled water requires a significant amount of oil, both to create the plastic bottle and to ship it. It is significantly more costly than most municipal water and distracts people from supporting improvements in municipal water, creating gaps for those who can afford water. Municipal water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has more stringent requirements for bacteria and toxic chemicals in water than the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates bottled water.
Vulnerable populations more often live in communities located near factories and waste and recycling facilities and they are directly affected by bottled water consumption. Multinational corporations are buying groundwater sources and distribution points, privatizing what many view as a human right—water, which all life needs to survive.
Members of some communities, whose water is contaminated or has been over-extracted by these operations, paradoxically must use bottled water to meet their basic needs, at a tremendous cost to them and further marginalizing their family economy.
The construction of a border wall between the US and Mexico has forced undocumented immigrants to migrate through the deserts near the Southern border. At this point, more than 1000 people die annually of dehydration and exposure, trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. When people put out the water necessary to save these peoples lives, it is currently considered illegal “littering.”
Climate Change and Changing Weather Patterns
The consequences of global climate change are so broad that they impact a number of water issues. Some areas experience excessive drought, while others deal with unprecedented flooding, like we saw in Pakistan this past summer. Those who are able to, can move to places with adequate access to clean water for drinking and sanitation or can afford to pay more for scarce water. Working to curb anthropogenic climate change work and support adaptation technologies to help people adapt to changing environments will help minimize the impacts climate change has on the world’s poorest peoples.
Ecosystems and Infrastructure
Scientists are examining the multiple threats to healthy global ecosystem functioning, including climate change, disrupted nitrogen cycles, waste of phosphorus, biodiversity loss, changes in landscapes, freshwater shortages, spread of toxics, and others. Improper use and management of water is implicated in these threats to life on Earth. Large industrial-scale water distribution and sewer systems use and displace water and energy, throw away valuable nutrient resources, and are incredibly costly.
Infrastructure that uses, treats, stores, and reuses water at a local scale can restore healthy ecosystems, create green jobs, and revitalize distressed communities. Trees and rain gardens are starting to be used in cities for storm water management. Buildings and neighborhoods set up water-efficiency and reuse systems. Energy and nutrients can be recovered from wastewater. These systems work with and mimic healthy natural processes and can deliver greater value than big-pipe infrastructure.
Human Rights to Water and Sanitation
Nearly a billion people today do not have access to drinking water and two billion go without adequate sanitation facilities, including here in the U.S. Activists around the world and the country have looked to human rights for an answer – and found that we can require governments to meet their human rights obligations to their citizens by prioritizing funding for everyone to have access to basic services. The human rights to water and sanitation mean that every person has the right to access, safe, affordable drinking water (the human right to water).
What does this mean in the U.S.? Many people are subject to water shutoffs when economic circumstances prevent them from paying their bills. The human right to water would ask our public and private utilities to ensure a lifeline rate, like we do with heat or telephone, so that elderly, disabled, unemployed, those with serious illness, and children are protected from arbitrary water shutoffs. Governments must give equal treatment to all and prioritize those communities who are marginalized first.
With rights come responsibilities. We must conserve water and not waste or contaminate water through our actions so that we do not impact the rights of other people. In some places, we have the responsibility to protect the rights of the ecosystem itself.