Consider: are there neighborhoods in your town with critical infrastructure needs? How can you advocate for them in your local government, and in support of organizers advocating for change?
The United States, we’re told, is a developed country where we all can enjoy a high standard of living or, at the very least, have our basic necessities met. This framing is problematic because it leaves international poverty as a given, but also because it isn’t even true. In under-resourced areas of this country, basic resources and infrastructure are unavailable to the often Black and Brown residents. Access to functional roads, nutritious food, and breathable air all depend on your race, wealth, and zip code.
This includes access to clean water and working sewage. Hurricane Ida created a public health catastrophe by unleashing toxic chemicals and raw sewage (Yahoo News), but decrepit water and sewage infrastructure serves poor communities of color across the nation. In early July, political machinations jeopardized efforts to install much-needed wastewater treatment in Lowndes County, Alabama. Many residents of the Black Belt county, home to a predecessor of the Black Panther Party during the Civil Rights movement (Black Past), have septic tanks in disrepair and no ability to connect to municipal sewer lines.
“When you’re living off a fixed income of maybe $700 a month, there’s no way for you to be able to fix the problem,” said activist Aaron Thigpen. Raw sewage therefore backs up into local homes or flows directly into open-air pits, contaminating drinking water and spreading E. Coli and hookworm. “I’d have to say I hadn’t seen this,” remarked the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights upon viewing open trenches of sewage and human waste (AL).
Lowndes County’s Perman Hardy spent “hundreds of hours” advocating for her community until she finally got almost $3 million pledged for wastewater treatment (AL). But a technicality at the County Commission level caused the grant money to be returned in its entirety, leaving residents without recourse (AL).
Over 2 million Americans have neither water nor indoor plumbing, with “many more without sanitation.” Racial, class, and rural/urban disparities are clear. Native American families are almost twenty times more likely than white families to lack plumbing. Over one in ten rural residents has problems with their sewage. A national review found that “race is the stronger predictor of water and sanitation access” and the “key obstacle” to water access is poverty (U.S. Water Alliance).
For an entire month this spring, the residents of Jackson, Mississippi were ordered to boil and limit use of water after low temperatures damaged the city’s water treatment plants (NBC News).
“The challenges of aging infrastructure are not new to Jackson, but this is different. This was an act of God that sent old systems into havoc resulting in severe water outages and trauma for our residents,” says Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. “Our systems were never meant to endure days of ice storms and sub-zero temperatures coupled by road conditions that prevented the delivery of critical supplies” (The Daily Beast).
With one in four Jackson residents living in poverty, many didn’t have the means to survive on bottled water for a month. “Part of the problem is that it’s everywhere. Usually when we have an outage it’s in one neighborhood . . . ,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, manager of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. “But when it’s the whole damn city, where are the Black people supposed to go? It’s not like this is everywhere; it’s where the mostly Black population in Jackson lives.” More than a few residents noted that the crisis hit South and West Jackson while Northeast Jackson, the one predominantly-white corner of this eighty percent Black capital city, was left largely unscathed (The Daily Beast).
The Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure plan earmarks $111 billion for water infrastructure repair. A commitment of this magnitude is urgently needed, but the inclusion of such language doesn’t mean we can stop advocating and supporting community efforts. This money would be dispersed through grants, just like Lowndes County funding that disappeared due to the intransigence of local political elites (U.S. Water Alliance). While politicians keep debating, groups like the Lowndes County Unincorporated Wastewater Project are stepping up to repair residents’ septic tanks immediately. Organizations like the GNO Caring Collective are providing on-the-ground support to Louisianans in the wake of Ida. It will take all of us fighting and backing community initiatives like these to ensure that clean water is not a privilege but a right.
Many poor communities of color lack access to clean water and working sewage systems.
In Lowndes County, raw sewage flows into open trenches, spreading diseases like E. Coli and hookworm.
Even if Congress allocates money for water infrastructure investment, it’s up to us to ensure it’s spent swiftly and equitably.