The Climate Crisis is a WASH* Crisis

The Climate Crisis is a WASH* Crisis

*WASH = water, sanitation, and hygiene, also commonly referred to as drinking water and wastewater/sewer 

A blog from the Pacific Institute, DigDeep, and the Center for Water Security and Cooperation 

by Morgan Shimabuku, Pacific Institute Senior Researcher; Nora Nelson, DigDeep Research Specialist, Achieving Water Equity; Dr. Shannon McNeeley, Pacific Institute Senior Researcher and Water and Climate Equity Lead; Kimberly Lemme, DigDeep Labs Executive Director; and Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari, Center for Water Security and Cooperation Co-Founder and Executive Director 

Key Takeaways

  • There is virtually no place in the United States where communities and individuals do not face risks from climate change. These risks will only amplify the challenges already faced by frontline communities with unreliable or limited water and wastewater access.  
  • To date, there has been no comprehensive analysis of climate-related vulnerabilities facing US WASH infrastructure in frontline communities.  
  • Existing law in the US at the state and federal levels inadequately governs the provision of safe, affordable, reliable, and resilient drinking water and sanitation services, especially in light of the pressures of climate change. 
  • A myriad of barriers hinder, reduce, or block advancement towards sustainable, equitable, climate-resilient WASH in the US. Taking stock of these obstacles is a key step toward finding solutions. 

Climate change is accelerating the water and wastewater access gap faced by millions of people in the United States. While no one region or group of people will be spared from the impacts of the climate crisis, frontline communities—those who experience climate change first and worst—are those most at risk. Households in frontline communities that experience tenuous, incomplete, and/or nonexistent drinking water or plumbing access face even higher risks.  

Partnering to unpack the challenges and advance solutions 

Our organizations—the Pacific Institute, DigDeep, and the Center for Water Security and Cooperation—have decades of combined experience working with and for communities to address water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenges in the US. We have united this expertise and are, together, determined to help speed the realization of equitable, sustainable, climate-resilient WASH for all.  

One key step towards this goal is identifying how, where, and to what degree climate change in the US will further disrupt water and sanitation access. We also need to further understand how to most effectively implement climate-resilient WASH for the most vulnerable, including those who currently are living without it. To this end, our organizations are collaborating on research to advance the state of knowledge surrounding climate change and WASH in the US.  

In 2023, we will co-publish our research findings, which will include: 

  • A detailed overview of science-based evidence and case studies of climate change impacts to WASH in frontline communities in the US;  
  • A survey of state and federal laws, policies, and programs at the intersection of WASH and climate change, including gaps where these fall short; 
  • Common obstacles or barriers to achieving and maintaining equitable, sustainable, and climate-resilient WASH in the US; 
  • Solutions and strategies—both implemented and proposed—that help address the identified barriers; and 
  • Conclusions and next steps on capacity building for climate-resilient WASH.  

Climate Impacts to WASH Across the US 

No region in the US has been spared from the ongoing and intensifying impacts of climate change on water systems. Along coastal regions, sea-level rise has damaged property and water infrastructure, both from slow-paced ongoing erosion and during increasingly powerful and more frequent storm events such as hurricanes. Flooding along rivers and streams has washed away houses and water infrastructure, contaminated supplies, and created sewage spills. In much of the Western US, but also in the Southeast, drought combined with unsustainable extraction of water from surface and groundwater supplies have led to dried up wells, concentrated pollutants, and lowered reservoir levels. Extreme events from tornadoes to hurricanes to temperature extremes have knocked out power, shutting down drinking water and wastewater systems, sometimes permanently. These and other challenges are only increasing, making those most vulnerable to climate impacts at high risk of losing access to WASH.  

The Disproportionate Impacts of Climate Change 

Unfortunately, adapting water and wastewater to climate change is not simply a technical or financial challenge. Historical discrimination and ongoing injustices caused by settler colonialism, racism, xenophobia, and a marked urban-rural divide in service provision contribute to water and wastewater access and climate adaptation challenges for many households. And, while climate change does not differentiate based on racial, social, or economic status, there are differences in the ways marginalized groups experience climate change. Here are some of many examples: 

  • In 2022, more than 1,000 domestic-wells dried up in California. Most of these are in the Central Valley, a primarily agricultural region, where groundwater levels are dropping due to drought and over pumping, leaving many low-income households with no water. These are often the same people who work in the fields where the majority of water is being used to grow crops, sustaining brutally hot conditions, only to return home to no water for drinking, cooking, bathing, or waste disposal.  
  • In July 2022, a severe storm and flooding impacted Central Appalachia. It produced major flooding in rural McDowell County, West Virginia, destroying roads and bridges, bringing down power lines, and eroding water and wastewater infrastructure. The governor issued a state of emergency for the county, but ultimately, little help came. A local paper reported in late July that the county could not afford the $5,000 per day fee that it would cost to receive a more robust response, and that most in the county with water access were under a boil advisory.  
  • Tens of thousands of Native Americans across the country lack reliable access to safe drinking water, and climate change will undoubtedly exacerbate the problem without action. For example, Alaska Natives are facing a myriad of challenges such as increased coastal erosion causing infrastructure damage, permafrost loss causing disappearance of entire lakes used for drinking water supplies, and reduced winter snow cover leading to more frozen and broken pipes. On the Navajo Nation, 30% of households have no running water.     
  • Along the US-Mexico border region, where thousands of neighborhoods called “colonias” lack basic services and are home to mostly Mexican-American families, an estimated 60,000 people live without water or sewer. While little to no research has been done to explore climate impacts on colonias specifically, many of these communities already lack water for firefighting, cooling, and other basic needs. Climate change will only exacerbate these deficiencies.

Laws, Policies, and Programs

A very limited patchwork of laws, policies, and programs currently exists that address WASH in the US, even without the additional complications of climate change. Broadly speaking, existing state and federal laws inadequately establish the basic rights, rules, and requirements necessary to ensure the provision of safe, affordable, reliable, and resilient water and sanitation services to all households and communities.  

Recent investments, such as those made in the 2021 federal Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (HR 3684)—or simply “IIJA”—are critical to financing the improvement of US water infrastructure. The IIJA is bringing $82.5 billion for water related projects alone between Fiscal Year 2022 and 2026. IIJA includes, for example: 

  • $8.3 billion for western water projects, 
  • $15 billion for lead pipe replacement, and  
  • $250 million for projects on tribal lands.  

However, it is yet to be seen exactly how the funding will be prioritized to support frontline, low-income, and communities of color who have historically experienced discrimination and underfunding. These communities arguably need the investment the most to either establish access to WASH for those without or to secure access to WASH for those with inadequate or unreliable access. The barriers, as well as potential solutions, need to be identified, understood, and addressed in order for equitable, sustainable, and climate-resilient WASH to become a reality for all in the US.  

Where We Go from Here 

This blog provides a short summary of some early key findings and examples of climate impacts to WASH for frontline communities in the US. Over the next several months, we will continue to incorporate input and feedback from stakeholders from across the country, as well as produce free, publicly available resources to help advance sustainable, equitable, climate-resilient WASH. 

Watch for the release of our US climate change and WASH assessment coming late summer or early fall 2023. Stay tuned for other engagement opportunities throughout the year.  

Visit this page to learn more about the Pacific Institute’s Water and Climate Equity focus area.  

To be notified of upcoming information or report releases on climate change and WASH in the US co-developed by the Pacific Institute, DigDeep, and the Center for Water Security and Cooperation, please provide your contact information here.  

Photo Credit: DigDeep

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