Viewpoint: An intersectional approach to water equity in the US

Andrea K. Gerlak
School of Geography, Development & Environment, Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA; agerlak@email.arizona.edu

Elena Louder
School of Geography, Development & Environment, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA; elouder@email.arizona.edu

Helen Ingram
Urban Planning and Public Policy, School of Social Ecology, University of California, Irvine, California, USA; hingram@uci.edu

ABSTRACT: In the United States today, there is growing concern over what is being referred to as a 'water crisis', but which is, in fact, a crisis of equity in water access. This concern has been exacerbated and illuminated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This paper draws on reports from leading NGOs, activist groups and media sources, on commentary from high-profile water actors, and on emerging academic literature. In the process of these investigations, it uncovers a tendency to frame the water crisis primarily in terms of affordability; it also notes widespread concern over access and water quality issues. All of these are fundamentally related to equity principles. We argue here that seeing America’s water crisis as being about equity of access provides an opportunity to foreground the historic inequities revealed by the pandemic and by the subsequent economic downturn. A broader, intersectional approach can open-up the problem framing of water equity in the US to include histories of racism and colonialism. An intersectional approach allows for a more integrated and holistic analysis of the ways in which social difference shapes access, quality and affordability of water. Underlying power structures can be revealed through a better understanding of how water inequities result from broader patterns of systemic racism and colonial relations. Ultimately, this improved understanding can result in interventions that disrupt familiar patterns of inequality. As the idea of a water crisis in the US comes into the mainstream, the paper offers a point from which academics can begin to frame their research and a base from which practitioners can consider how to better achieve equity in water governance.

KEYWORDS: Equity, water crisis, intersectionality, race, power, US