There’s very little clarity about the current pandemic—how long it will last, when a vaccine could arrive—but medical experts all seem to agree that one of the few things we can do to significantly stop the spread of covid-19 is washing our hands frequently. I’ve been washing mine so much that my knuckles are starting to peel.
But not everyone can. In the United States—the richest country in the world—access to water is often contingent upon payment. But water bills, like all bills, will become more difficult to pay as covid-19 wreaks havoc on the economy and bosses lay off thousands of workers. One study estimates 3 million people could lose their jobs by this summer.
“Across the country, people are having to choose between rent, food, medicine, every necessity that costs money—and water,” Jackie Filson, national communications manager at Food and Water Watch, told Earther.
Thankfully, in the past week and a half, 255 U.S. city and state governments have temporarily suspended these disconnections, according to data compiled by Food and Water Watch. These suspensions will ensure that more than 115 Americans will have continued access to water.
Of course, that still means some two-thirds of the nation’s population could lose water.
“To heed calls for hand hygiene during this pandemic, it’s more important than ever for elected officials to finally take action to make sure that every person in the country has access to water, and it’s great that many are but there’s a ways to go,” Filson said. “That’s why we need national action.”
Many are calling for more of these suspensions. On Capitol Hill last week, a dozen members of Congress signed a called for the federal government to institute a national moratorium on water shutoffs. And on Thursday, 575 utility justice, labor, faith, consumer, and environmental organizations, including Food and Water Watch, signed a letter urging state officials and utility regulators to immediately cease all utility shutoffs, including water and electricity.
“Families should never be put in the impossible position where they must choose between getting care for the coronavirus or other illness and sustaining access to their power and water services,” the letter says.
Water is essential for human life, but for many Americans, access to it is limited. A 2018 Food and Water Watch study found that an estimated one out of every 20 households had their water turned off in 2016.
The highest rates of shutoffs occurred in cities with higher poverty rates and more people of color. In 2014, for instance, Detroit—a 79 percent Black city with a median income of $26,000—commenced the largest residential water shutoff in U.S. history, suspending service to over 20,000 residents for lack of payment. Last year, they stopped service for 11,800 households.
After years of being pushed by tireless organizers, this month, Detroit was the first city to instate a moratorium on the practice. And unlike the majority of jurisdictions, it’s actually agreed to restore water to all Detroit residents who already had their service disconnected. It’s unclear how many Americans are currently facing water shutoffs because no federal entity tracks them, but nationally, the number could be in the thousands, according to Filson.
“It’s wrong that people are having to choose between rent, food, medicine, every necessity that costs money—and water,” she said. “The coronavirus crisis shows how wrong it is, but ultimately, we need to see [permanent bans] on shutoffs.”
Indeed, Americans’ lack of access to water is one of the many broken structures that this crisis is bringing into sharp relief. People don’t only need water to wash their hands and prevent the spread of covid-19, but also to drink, shower, cook, and clean. Global pandemic or not, that’s always true. A water system that cuts off access to residents who can’t afford it is a system that’s in crisis, and it shouldn’t take an unprecedented health emergency to fix it.
Covid-19 has prompted officials to listen to organizers and not only improve people’s access to water, but also stop evictions, end broadband usage caps, expand sick leave, and provide relief from student loans. But lack of access to basic utilities—and lack of money—didn’t start with covid-19.
“I think the way that elites often see crises are short term ruptures to an otherwise perfectly acceptable status quo, and they are willing to undertake authentic emergency measures that can sometimes be very progressive, simply in the context of returning to the status quo,” Aldana Cohen, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, told Earther. “What social movements working on the grounds tend to think of in terms of a disaster like the one we’re in—or climate change—is that they’re exacerbations of slower-moving forms of emergency.”
Without transformative changes, we still won’t see the end of those issues. In fact, as the climate crisis becomes more severe, they’ll get worse. More frequent and more intense storms will put increased pressure on pipes. Nationwide, water systems are already seeing more leaks and sewage overflows. There’s also work to be done to ensure people have access to clean water: Many pipes are still full of lead, some drinking water is contaminated with PFAS, and many cities are still built to send polluting raw sewage into rivers and bays. And more frequent heatwaves will make access to drinking water all the more important
But we can do something about all of this as part of a massive Green New Deal program. And as my colleague Brian Kahn wrote, this is the time to do so, because right now, governments have a major opportunity for investment to manage the fallout of this pandemic. Corporations are already lining up for federal bailouts. But instead of bailing out fossil fuel companies or airlines—industries that urgently need to be wound down or overhauled to prevent catastrophic climate consequences—we should be directing public investments toward the new systems we need to mitigate and weather the climate crisis. That kind of massive green public investment program, it turns out, is popular.
“The pandemic is really showing and kind of showing the cracks in our systems as they are now, and the reality is that we’re going to continue to see new types of crises continue to come up,” Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the Climate and Energy Program at the Democracy Collaborative, told Earther. “But this is our opportunity. It’s time to actually make change so that we are more resilient and we’re ready as more crises come barreling down at us.”
In the immediate term, to ensure people can stay healthy, the very least the United States could do is stop water shutoffs altogether. And if we ever see the end of this public health crisis, shutoffs shouldn’t begin again.
“These new policies [to stop water shutoffs] are so great, but ... it really is a shame that it took a pandemic for this to happen,” said Filson. “And I hope the end of the pandemic doesn’t take them away. People need water every single day.”