In the past few years, clean water has been among the most controversial issues in America.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan began in 2014, when the city’s water source became the Flint River, which isn’t safe to drink; more than three years and many illnesses later, the city is still without safe drinking water.

In 2016, Dakota Access Pipeline protests were as newsworthy as the presidential election. Concerned that the pipeline would threaten their water supply, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protested. Although oil began flowing through the pipeline this year, the issue has not been resolved. A judge recently ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not adequately consider the possible environmental impacts of the pipeline. Regardless of the outcome of the DAP case, there are many other pipeline protests throughout the country, and this issue is far from over.

In each of these cases — and in other water contamination cases like those in New York and California — local residents have become activists in the fight for clean water. Flint water activists have seen some successes – several state officials were recently charged with involuntary manslaughter for their complicity in the deaths of residents due to unsafe water – but they continue to fight for clean water. As many water activists know, there are few quick wins. It takes tireless dedication to ensuring clean water, both in the U.S. and beyond.

But the stakes are high. Whether fighting lead-ridden water, potential river contamination, or flooding caused by overdevelopment, people around the world are taking a stand.

Why Water is Worth Fighting For

Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to get clean water from our tap as often as we like take it for granted. But those who have to fight for that privilege know how important water is to every aspect of life. People cannot survive without clean water, and neither can ecosystems. Water is crucial for the survival of humans and the planet.

It goes far beyond mere drinking water. Water “is vital for reducing the global burden of disease and improving the health, welfare, and productivity of populations,” according to UN Water. It is also a critical part of preventing and adapting to climate change, and an essential part of infrastructure.

Yet global water statistics are sobering. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP):

  • At least 1.8 billion people globally use a fecally contaminated drinking source
  • Water scarcity affects more than 40% of the world’s people, and this figure is projected to rise
  • Floods and other water-related disasters make up 70% of all deaths caused by natural disasters

No wonder water has become an important focus of many governments and charities around the world. Clearly, action is needed to improve global water quality.

In 2015, world leaders committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 6 concerns water, and includes a target of ensuring universal access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030. This requires investing in infrastructure, providing sanitation facilities, and encouraging appropriate hygiene.

If this goal is to be achieved, it will be in no small part due to the efforts of water activists. For each example of water contamination, drought, or flooding, activists have pushed to raise awareness of the issue and fix it. Activism is particularly important when a water issue is not merely an issue of infrastructure or poor sanitation practices, but has a political dimension.

Unfortunately, that is too often the case.

The Politics of Water

As UN Water states, “The physical world of water is closely bound up with the socio-political world, with water often a key factor in managing risks such as famine, migration, epidemics, inequalities, and political instability.”

The political dimensions of American water issues in Flint and North Dakota are obvious. Similarly, many water issues in other parts of the world are highly political.

  • Flooding in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is worsened by the city’s inadequate flood controls. In the past 10 years, the Cambodian government has leased six of the city’s lakes to land developers, which have filled the lakes in for their development projects. Without these lakes, the monsoon rains have nowhere to go. Some city streets are flooded with water more than 30 inches deep.
  • Pollution in the Ganges River in India has made it a “toxic waterway.” Environmentalists have applauded a recent court ruling which declared the Ganges to have the same rights as a person, which would make polluting the river the legal equivalent of hurting a person.
  • Water contamination in El Salvador, largely caused by mining, means 98% of fresh water in the country is contaminated.
  • Preventable blindness in Uganda is caused by bacteria spread in unsafe drinking water. Women are disproportionately affected by the disease, because gender roles put them in charge of garden work, cooking, collecting water, and other tasks that expose them to unsafe water more often than men.  

There are many ways to improve access to and quality of water around the world. As outlined in the SDGs, some important steps are to:

  • Reduce pollution, eliminate dumping, and minimize the release of hazardous chemicals and materials; treat wastewater; increase recycling
  • Increase water-use efficiency
  • Improve water resource management
  • Protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers, and lakes
  • Improve water and sanitation-related activities involved in water harvesting, desalination, and wastewater treatment, particularly in developing countries
  • Support and strengthen local communities’ ability to participate in improving water and sanitation or, as it is often known, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH)

The Power of Water Activism

Ultimately, ensuring clean water takes the collaboration of governments, businesses, communities, and activists.

The Flint water activists are a great example of this. Their situation is ironic – while they have not yet succeeded in restoring clean water to their own community, they have improved the quality of water throughout America by turning attention to the issue.

For example, New York City owes the quality of its water in part to the Flint activists who raised questions about water testing. As Matthew Corkins writes in The Observer, “The Flint water crisis opened up the whole country’s water systems to scrutiny. But it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the many scientists, activists, mothers, all those in Flint, Mich., who have worked hard to supply clean water and support, to obtain information, to spread information, and so much more.”

Now more than ever, water is an issue we should all care about, and water activism is the key to ensuring we all have the clean water we need.


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