For more than 2 million people in the United States, accessing safe water isn't as simple as turning on the faucet in the kitchen or bathroom. Many people live near contaminated water sources and need to travel for miles to pay for access to dedicated taps. Yet until Monday (November 18), there was little information on the scope of the water crisis in America — which is why the organizations DigDeep and US Water Alliance released the most comprehensive report on the issue, NPR reported.
Called "Closing the Water Access Gap In The United States," the report found that someone's race is the greatest indicator as to the likelihood of their living without access to safe water. Three out of every 1,000 white Americans lack complete plumbing in their homes, and five out of every 1,000 Black and Latinx Americans are similarly affected. But that number jumps to 58 out of every 1,000 Native households; per the National Congress of American Indians, around 5.2 million Native peoples live in the U.S., meaning just over 300,000 Native peoples are forced to navigate life with the added challenge of ensuring they have safe water.
"To live daily without reliable drinking water and with untreated sewage are conditions more frequently associated with impoverished nations, but it’s happening in our own backyards," George McGraw, the founder of DigDeep, said in a statement.
Income and location also serve as factors as to whether people have access to clean water, as does unemployment and education rates. Many Native peoples in particular live on reservations that are supposed to be self-determining (though the federal government has a long history of undermining such treaties, to devastating effect). Per NPR, the Indian Health Service estimated a cost of $200 million to provide safe water to the Navajo Nation alone; that is just one of the 326 reservations in the country.
The report highlighted the issues plaguing the majority Latinx population in Tulare County, California, the colonias in El Paso County, Texas, and on the island of Puerto Rico; as well as the majority-Black community of Lowndes County, Alabama; and the rural communities in the Appalachians. The more than 550,000 people in America experiencing homelessness, 2.3 million people currently incarcerated, and millions of others who work in precarious jobs are also affected, though there is less quantifiable information about their access to water.
A press release provided to MTV News also underscored the racist policies that influenced such inequities, detailing how, "in the 1960s, Roanoke, VA would not extend water lines to black neighborhoods. In the early 1900s, Hispanic communities were discouraged from incorporating [as townships], which excluded them from water and sanitation initiatives from the 1950s on."
Issues are ongoing, too; the report found that water access has worsened in Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Dakota, as well as in Puerto Rico even before Hurricane Maria devastated the island. It's no doubt gotten worse: In September 2018, the Washington Post reported that 58 percent of Puerto Ricans worry about the quality of water in their homes. And in Flint, Michigan, residents are still forced to navigate life with limited access to water they can trust, after a government-mandated shift toward a new water supply put thousands of lives at risk.
And the effects of water poverty can affect young people in particularly insidious ways. "One of the things that we encountered with this report a lot is sort of the shame and the stigma that comes with not having access to running water, and I think that holds especially true for young people," McGraw told MTV News. "They wake up in the morning without running water at home; if they're lucky, a couple of times a week, [they] go to a relatives house maybe to take a shower, but often have to go to public school with a bunch of other kids who took a shower and brushed their teeth that morning."
As McGraw pointed out, "Not having access to water in the United States is different materially than in a very low income region, where it's sort of universally true for those around you. A lot of the people in this report live just a couple blocks from a fast food restaurant. They pay taxes. They are accessible by text message." It's a problem that is hidden in plain sight, he adds, but according to both McGraw and US Water Alliance's Zoe Roller, there are solves available — and young people are on the frontlines of eradicating these issues.
"I think that this is a problem that young people will especially have a voice in solving," Roller told MTV News. "I think there are a lot of opportunities for young people to advocate for themselves and to get involved, whether that's sharing their stories on social media and bringing more visibility to the problem or working with organizations [dedicated to the cause]."
"Most Americans, I think, are just unaware that there are people in our country who don't have access to water," McGraw added. "Reports like this can help show us where those inequities are and how we can solve the challenges around it." He also challenged 2020 Presidential candidates, and those running for office at lower levels, to rise to the occasion, stressing: "This is something we should be able to solve."
MTV News has reached out to both the Department of the Interior and the Department of Health and Human Services for comment. This story has been updated.