The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
Do we really understand water inequities in the USA?
Water as a resource for humans is fundamentally inequitable: naturally distributed water supplies do not occur where people want them, nor at the times and in quantities and/or qualities that people prefer. Water politics has largely been motivated by goals of securing plentiful, clean, and cheap water supplies and pushing off risks to others. That has resulted in exacerbating natural inequities by routing clean, plentiful, and inexpensive water to the rich and powerful and leaving behind the poor and powerless. In this time of water crisis, priorities and perspectives are changing.
In a recent paper (Gerlak et al., 2022), we analyse the many emerging faces of water equity in the US. Our analysis captures the dominant and emerging framings of the water crisis in the USA and finds that fairness and equity have emerged as prominent values. We understand equity to mean fairness in the water-related decision-making process, that is, full access to information and the ability to participate; equity also means having access to the substance of water-related decisions and outcomes, which is to say being able to modify decisions and outcomes to redress imbalances in power, access, and distributive fairness.
While important work has already been done to dis-entangle the multiple dimensions of water inequity, water injustice is about more than distribution; it is also about the knowledge, meanings and discourse that shape water control and management (Zwarteveen and Boelens, 2014). As Wilder and Ingram (2018) articulate, knowing equity means engaging in a process of "critical inquiry that delves into the value bias of existing institutions and processes, the openness and accessibility of political arenas, an appraisal of what and who is being served by water related decisions, and what and who may be left out." Other researchers argue that "understanding what tips the scales against fairness in water governance is the first necessary step in designing more equitable, just and appropriate institutions and processes (Groenfeldt and Schmidt, 2013). Unfortunately, despite calls for more focus on water equity, widely used structures for analysing water policy fail to prioritise equity (Gerlak and Ingram, 2018).
We argue for an intersectional approach in future research, activism, and practice. The multiple dimensions of water inequity cannot be understood or addressed if they are not analysed with respect to deeper histories of systemic racism, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism. Pellow (2016) argues that, traditionally, environmental justice scholars tended to focus on one or two dimensions of inequality, neglecting the deeper interlinking systems that shape environmental injustice along multiple lines of social difference. Research and practice focused on water inequity could benefit from an intersectional approach.
The value of, and necessity for, an intersectional approach is well illustrated by the literature on 1) Native American communities in the southwestern USA, 2) colonias, or unincorporated residential areas along the US-Mexico border, and (3) water shut-offs in Detroit, Michigan. These cases show how affordability may be an entry point for understanding water inequity. Affordability, however, is often linked to limited access and issues of quality, which force people to buy water from more expensive sources. This phenomenon is also frequently layered on top of high rates of poverty, which further limits people's capacity to absorb increased water costs. These three examples of water inequity in the USA reveal how race, poverty, and social difference are crucial elements of understanding water inequity – a point that is widely applicable.
There are, however, hurdles and both incentives and disincentives for doing the kinds of intersectional analysis we call. For instance, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a standard for water service affordability, defining it as the expenditure of 2.5% or less of median income on water. However, little data has been collected on the issue and there is no legal framework for enforcement. As there are no national – and few state-level – requirements for water utilities to report on disconnections, the extent of the problem is not clearly understood (Holmes et al., 2020; Walton, 2020). Is 2.5% a reasonable target? Could future state and federal funding be tied to progress towards such a target?
In addition, information on water agency structure, funding, aging infrastructure, limited customer and tax basis are impediments to the kinds of intersectional analysis we call for. Declines in federal funding to agencies are seen as a key driver of rising household water bills. Food and Water Watch (2017) reports that federal funding for infrastructure has dropped by 74% in real dollars since 1977. How might anti-poverty policies at state and federal levels spur innovations in water-rate settings?
Finally, we recognise that unequal access to water is a global problem. This is the reason behind Sustainable Development Goal number six on universal access to clean water and sanitation. The experience of the USA suggests that achieving this goal will require far more than simply increased funding to construct infrastructure: it will require political leadership and mobilisation to give poor communities a stronger voice, and more in-depth inter-sectional research to untangle the complexities.
Andrea K. Gerlak, Elena Louder and Helen Ingram
Andrea K. Gerlak is the Director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona and a Professor in the School of Geography, Development & Environment.
Helen Ingram is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine.
Elena Louder is a graduate student in the School of Geography, Development and Environment at the University of Arizona.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Gregory Bull
Food and Water Watch. 2018. America's secret water crisis. Washington, DC: Food and Water Watch.
Gerlak, A.K. and Ingram, H. 2018. De-politicized policy analysis: How the prevailing frameworks of analysis slight equity in water governance. In Boelens, R.; Perreault, T. and Vos, J. (Eds), Water justice, pp. 71-88. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Groenfeldt, D. and Schmidt, J. 2013. Ethics and water governance. Ecology and Society 18(1): 14, http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-04629-180114
Holmes, L.; Shimabuku, M.; Feinstein, L.; Pierce, G.; Gleick, P. and Diringer, S. 2020. Issue Brief: Water and the COVID- 19 Pandemic: Equity dimensions of utility disconnections in the US. Oakland, CA: The Pacific Institute.
Mack, E.A. and Wrase, S. 2017. A burgeoning crisis? A nationwide assessment of the geography of water affordability in the United States. PLoS ONE 12(1): 1-19.
Pellow, D.N. 2016. Toward a critical environmental justice studies: Black Lives Matter as an environmental justice challenge. Du Bois Review 13(2): 221-236.
Walton, B. 2020. Lack of utility data obscures customer water debt problems. Circle of Blue. https://www.circleofblue.org/2020/world/lack-of-utility-data-obscures-customer-water-debt- problems/?mc_cid=c74ca0cb7b&mc_eid=e4e8fd57ea (accessed: 06/21/21)
Wilder, M. and Ingram, H. 2018. Knowing equity when we see it: Water equity in contemporary global contexts. In Conca, K. and Weithal, E. (Eds), The Oxford handbook of water politics and policy, pp. 1-28. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zwarteveen, M. and Boelens, R. 2014. Defining, researching and struggling for water justice: Some conceptual building blocks for research and action. Water International 39(2): 233-45. https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060.2014.891168
The article highlights a critical approach questioning how water institutions and practices emerged, the interests they represent and serve while rejecting the legitimacy of existing policy parameters. Alternatively, a problem-solving perspective sees the relationships and institutions as given and present a framework for action. Both perspectives are relevant to the article's human and water security theme. While I support the interrogation of values and institutions and the questioning of the interests held by, for instance, the EPA, we need to go beyond the normative advocacy claims - it appears to be practical, but isn't. Reducing the problem to racism, colonialism and capitalism as the trinity of ills can do more harm than good in that the responsibility for individuals to take action are diluted to such an extent that they feel they can't do much to improve their situation. Problem-solving approaches and scholars can, in this regard, be useful and add value to indicate how to engage with policymakers and influence policies through engagement and, simultaneously highlight to people that they possess agency. It is not enough to look for opportunities to change the world for the better, we also need to look for opportunities to engage with policymakers, influence policy and show people they have agency. A dialogue is needed between critical and problem-solving scholars to learn from one another and add value not only to the water governance discourse but also to the lives of those facing water (in)security - critical is a right, action a responsibility.
Many thanks for your post and for engaging with us. Being critical of the existing institutional structures and decision-making is not at odds with problem solving. Rather we argue that understanding the relationships and institutions is a foreground, and absolutely essential to inform problem solving and the crafting of new solutions. For far too long, however, problem solving around water has been framed narrowly in the technical domain, thereby excluding other voices and promoting a narrow set of solutions. To really address the problems here in the US around water that are coming to the political forefront, we need to engage with the deeper histories of these issues. We recognize the challenges associated with finding solutions to these complex and intractable problems but engaging with the power dynamics and systemic inequities is an important place to start. At a minimum, it allows others to come sit at the table and participate -- and we need all the creativity and energy we can find given the scope of the challenges. We hope we have started a conversation to identify some first steps in terms of research and also to address some water affordability challenges in the US. We welcome other concrete suggestions.
- Andrea K, Gerlak, Elena Louder & Helen Ingram
Richard is based in South Africa. It strikes me that there are a lot of parallels between the roots of inequity in water in the two countries. 28 years after the change to a democratic government in South Africa which claimed to be transforming the entire socio-economic structure to be more equitable, with major investments in water as a cornerstone of that policy, South Africans' access to and voice regarding water remains extremely unequal. In order to find practical solutions, I also think the first step is a deep analysis of the roots of ineqity.
In this interesting Water Alternatives Forum, the authors underline the water ethics and social fairness of water supply allocation in our advanced societies and especially in the USA. The picture of a man transporting a huge amount of bottled water for drinking reveals the additional cost that poor social groups should pay because of the social inequity in water supply distribution between the rich and the poor.
However, if the diagnostic of water supply inequity is right, the attribution of this unfortunate fact to political decisions driven by ideologies, such as racism, colonialism, and capitalism is an oversimplification that cannot help understanding the problem. On the contrary, it may increase social reactions flagging the liberal free economy as the only tool for improving social inequalities by inventing new advanced technologies and offering low-cost social services.
No doubt that we should go deeper in the analysis of social reasons that can create an unfair water supply distribution between the poorer and the rich. After all, water is a common good to humans and everyone, including all ecosystems, has the right of access to clean water, sufficient for his survival. However, although water allocation depends ultimately on political decisions, in democratic societies these are not independent of the water management and policy models we use. The output of these models refers to organizational, technical, and economic recommendations that politicians use for taking decisions in water management and water allocation.
In two recent publications (*) we claim that the existing approach of integrated water resources management reflects in our advanced democratic societies the anthropocentric and technical-dominated relationship between man and nature. Since the 2nd industrial revolution and based on advanced scientific and technical achievements man has felt able to dominate nature by damning big rivers, diverting their flow, and reclaiming lagoons and humid areas. Under the prevailing free-market economy, man’s mastery over natural water resources has created huge externalities, such as water pollution, water scarcity, and loss of biodiversity. As a consequence, huge social costs especially in modern mega-cities and in remote places have increased social inequities of water supply. To improve the water management model we suggest a new eristic-dialectical model based on conflict resolution between water uses and natural laws. This harmonic symbiosis between man and nature should also imply more social fairness and equity in water supply distribution.
Jacques Ganoulis (2021): The water-man eristic dialectics for sustainable hydro-governance.
Water International, 46:7-8, 1135-1157
Jacques Ganoulis (2022). The Eristic-Dialectical Model for Urban Hydro-Security: The Attica Metropolitan Case in Greece. In: UNESCO i-WSSM. Water Security and Cities – Integrated Urban Water Management, Accepted, in print.
Many thanks for this insightful piece that draws attention to water inequities. I would like to vow on ‘the need to engage with deeper histories of these issues’, as someone highlighted above, but taking Maputo as a case in point. Maputo is the capital city of Mozambique, which is highly unequal in both access to water and sanitation services and distributions of environmental risks. There is a new master planning process aiming to change the situation, and I've been interested in understanding how current plans address contemporary inequities across the city. Through historical research based on archival analysis, we demonstrate that water and sanitary inequalities in Maputo city were historically produced and are the product of power relations. We also claim that contemporary masterplans overlook and naturalize these historical differences to propose improvements for some urban spaces and segments of populations while neglecting others, suggesting that some residents’ needs are more important than others.
Our engagement with the socio-historical process shows that water supply has always followed segregationist lines between people and spaces. Colonial master plans for water distribution across the city neighbourhoods were prime in terms of engineering unequal water distribution practices. Water supply distribution in the city was first based on zoning and spatial separation into two zones. The plans provided different amounts of water to the neighbourhoods according to who inhabited them, whether the colony population (white) or the native population (blacks and some Asians). Much of the native population, considered indigenous, has always depended on self-built wells and water sold by small white traders, who saw an opportunity to profit. Concerning sanitation, we o trace how colonial power relations worked to normatively distinguish urban spaces and the people who live in them, making some residents and places more deserving of public protection and investments than others. Colonial authorities used projects of drainage and land reclamation to create different sanitary environments for different kind of the population. Then differences between people and spaces in terms of cleanliness and hygiene used to produce a deeply racialized society. Citizenship categories were created and linked to (un)sanitary status and behaviours and then translated into spatial differences and separations.
Post-independence authorities did not little to challenge this logic rendering some residents more deserving than others. The new government prioritized the countryside, and the city was seen as a vestige and symbol of colonialism. Current plans are silent about the sanitary needs of the urban poor and peripheral areas of the city, that house 70% of the urban population. It happens because experts and policymakers are naturalizing sanitary differences. They frame the exclusion of the poor and unserved areas in economic terms and through mobilization of cost recovery discourse. They take inequality, which is a political problem, and frame it in technical terms.
Biza, A., Kooy, M., Manuel, S. and Zwarteveen, M., 2021. Sanitary governmentalities: Producing and naturalizing social differentiation in Maputo City, Mozambique (1887–2017). Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, p.2514848621996583.