An outdoor steel faucet that is streaming running water.

How Inequality Fuels the Global Water Crisis

The United Nations recognizes March 22nd as World Water Day, a date set aside to inspire action to preserve freshwater resources and demand access to clean water for all. Globally, 3.6 billion people lack access to clean water in their homes: nearly half the world’s population (CDC). 

Many people in the United States are taught that water access is only a problem in poor countries because of their lack of “development.” By this way of thinking, some countries are more advanced than others. The most developed, like the United States, have universal access to clean water. Other countries simply aren’t advanced enough to have functional water infrastructure yet. One day, they’ll develop enough to have clean water, just like rich countries do today. World Water Day is an opportunity to analyze the problems with this false and harmful narrative. 


• Support the defense of water access in AppalachiaAtlantaDetroitEl SalvadorHawai’iJacksonLouisiana, and Mexico.

• Join international organizing in solidarity to address the power imbalances that fuel the water crisis.

• Consider: Have you ever been unable to access water, food, or other necessary resources because of poverty, inadequate infrastructure, or geographic location? What concrete actions can we take to ensure that everyone in our communities has access to necessary resources? 

For one thing, it simply isn’t true that everyone in the United States has clean water. While affluent, predominantly-white communities almost always have drinkable tap water, many marginalized communities in the world’s wealthiest country have water infrastructure that’s unsafe, inaccessible, or simply not there. For years, tap water in Flint, Michigan, had toxic levels of lead, exposing 9,000 children to toxins (Water Defense) and contributing to behavioral health issues in a majority of the city’s households (CDC). 2 million U.S. residents have no plumbing, with Native Americans almost 20 times more likely than white residents to lack running water. In total, 44 million people get water from systems with Safe Drinking Water Act violations (NPR). Even when water is drinkable, you aren’t able to access it unless you pay. Approximately 140,000 residents of Detroit had their water shut off between 2014 and 2020 because they were unable to pay average water bills of $1,151 a year (NRDC), though “access to water and sanitation are recognized by the United Nations as human rights—fundamental to everyone’s health, dignity, and prosperity” (United Nations). 

It’s also not the case that countries don’t have clean water because they aren’t “developed” enough. If that were true, poor countries that industrialized and opened themselves to U.S. investment, manufacturing, and extractive industries would get cleaner water. In reality, the opposite is often the case. 

“In my hometown in Zacatecas, Mexico, we’ve had problems getting enough clean water to drink and do basic things since I was a child. All the water is used by mines owned by U.S. and Canadian companies,” Laura Alonso López told The ARD. “It seems like the government doesn’t care about people in very rural towns. People I love are leaving the state to have a better life.” 

Countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that export goods to wealthy countries divert greater shares of drinkable water to irrigation and manufacturing, leaving less water for residents (National Geographic). Residents of Mexicali rejected efforts by U.S.-based Constellation Brands to monopolize water for a new brewery, though the company now plans on building the brewery in a different state in Mexico (Reuters). Countries throughout Latin America have been forced by U.S.-controlled institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to disinvest in and privatize water infrastructure until a majority of Latin Americans lacked sufficient water. European and U.S. corporations are swooping in to take advantage of the crisis (NACLA). 

“Global ecological problems like the water crisis do not merely result from the depletion of natural resources; they mostly come from unequal distributions of both natural resources and power,” writes Beauty Dhlamini (Jacobin). People in poor countries don’t lack access to clean water because they haven’t “developed” enough to become rich. Communities don’t lack basic resources because of too much or too little “development” but because a number of individual elite decision-makers at corporations and multinational institutions ensure that development under the current economic and political system is only ever to the benefit of the wealthy at the expense of the most marginalized. First World corporations and political elites keep poor countries underdeveloped by exploiting the labor and natural resources of their residents (CUNY). From Detroit to Zacatecas, the pockets of the few are lined by denying basic infrastructure to marginalized communities. 

This World Water Day, we must demand full access to clean water for communities in the United States and abroad. We should demand accountability and support mutual aid efforts to ensure everyone in disadvantaged communities can survive until directly affected people can create much-needed structural changes. In the words of environmental justice and labor organizer Utah Phillips, “The Earth is not dying, it’s being killed. And the people killing it have names and addresses” (NPR). 


• Almost half the world’s population lacks home plumbing with drinkable water. 

• This includes millions of people in the United States.

• While corporate greed facilitates a global water crisis, communities demand infrastructure and building mutual aid to correct historic wrongs. 

1646 1108 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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