This is the Year of Climate Change and Health, a 12-month APHA-led initiative with monthly themes meant to raise awareness of and mobilize action on the health impacts of climate change. In August, we focus on Water Quality. Today’s guest blogger, Jalonne L. White-Newsome, MS, Ph.D., is a senior program officer with The Kresge Foundation and a professorial lecturer at The George Washington University. For World Water Week, she addresses the need for climate-resilience approaches that equitably transform US water systems. 

 

jalonne-white-newsome-107_webThe state threatens to take away a young mother’s children because she can’t pay her water bill. Hurricane Katrina displaces thousands due to flooding. And water infrastructure remains nonexistent in rural America, while contamination is the norm and raw sewage erupts from sewers into homes. The increasing unaffordability of water, the disruption of families and communities due to water-related issues and lack of equitable water infrastructure are stark reminders that water plays an everyday role in our lives.

We all deserve access to safe, healthy and affordable water. The sad reality is that water-related health inequities are persistent across the US and exacerbated by climate change, which is putting severe stress on neglected water infrastructure with increased intensity and frequency of precipitation events and extreme storms.

Climate change is here
The water-related community impacts of more intensified storms and flooding can affect the physical, economic and social health of communities. This includes personal harm from exposure to waterborne diseases and contaminated water. And it includes harm to homes and businesses that can lead to the displacement of residents, fractured relationships and neighborhoods and even the removal of children from homes deemed uninhabitable due to lack of potable water.

Climate change is a persistent reality for many communities nationwide that deal with extreme weather, which can overwhelm water infrastructure. This new climate reality hits hard, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, as well as for those living in climate-vulnerable locations. A recently released national briefing paper, An Equitable Water Future, details how certain segments of society are more likely to live in low-quality housing, lack insurance and possess fewer resources to cope with and recover from disasters.

Those communities – which are disproportionately made up of people of color – take the brunt of climate change impacts that extend beyond infrastructure. The ripple effects of climate change harm human health, hurt local economies and can tear apart a community’s social cohesion. So how do we face our new reality and foster resilience in the face of climate change? One word: transformation.

Transformative thinking
In the water sector, transformation means changing our thinking, our policies and our physical and social infrastructure to both explicitly account for climate change and better reflect the needs and priorities of constituencies that, until, now have been ignored. The type of transformation we need must occur at all levels of government and in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

At The Kresge Foundation, our vision for climate-resilient and equitable water systems involves those that are responsive to climate change, engage low-income communities in large-scale water 635510029686776395-060414-detroit-004-rbplanning, embed climate change into planning processes and create paths for investments to build water infrastructure where needs are the greatest. We must recognize that the cumulative impact of climate change on water resources not only leads to a reduction in water quality and the destruction of homes and property, but also can be a threat to the physical, mental and economic health of a community.

To transform the water systems sector, it will take the will of municipal and utility leaders, community-based leaders, scientists, engineers, water experts, policymakers, philanthropists and public health agencies, healthcare providers, public safety agencies, educational institutions and environmental and governmental agencies.

At the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for many of the policies that protect human health and the environment. By threatening severe cuts to the EPA’s budget and legal reach, though, the current White House administration has endangered the health of millions of Americans and the environment at large – including those low-income communities at risk of intense storms and flooding.

In response, campaigns such as the Clean Water For All Campaign, led by the National Wildlife Federation and several other environmental and equity-focused groups, work to defend foundational water protections and promote innovative infrastructure investments capable of handling the increasingly severe effects of climate change.

Finding solutions
In a recent analysis of potential investments in the water sector to benefit climate-vulnerable, low-income communities, a Kresge-commissioned report identified two intervention points as particularly important. The first was to enhance climate resilience planning services for water systems. The second was to advance use of green infrastructure – including natural and on-site water treatment systems, such as bioswales, permeable pavement, rooftop gardens and natural wetlands.

kresgeGreen infrastructure can produce a range of direct water-system benefits, from improving water quality to reducing combined sewer overflows. It can yield additional health and community benefits, such as reducing urban heat islands and contributing to local employment in the construction and maintenance phases. The bottom line is that, despite the threats, we have solutions.

And public health should be at the table as these solutions are advanced locally to ensure that the potential health benefits are fully realized. As the largest public health organization in the world, the American Public Health Association and its diverse member base are critical to this transformation.

If we can begin to broaden the composition, intersectionality and cultural competency of influencers and decision-makers, we can build more responsive, nimble and climate-resilient water systems. Public health practitioners and leaders must work to ensure that any proposed course of action to address the climate impacts on our water system are sustainable and holistic, free of institutional racism and individual bias and can improve the physical, mental and economic health of our communities.

 

Join the Environmental Health Coalition Twitter Chat, “What’s in Your Water: The State of Water and Our Health,” on Aug. 30 from 1-2 pm EDT to weigh in on the water issues we face and the solutions that work. This is part of the advocacy efforts of APHA and the coalition to protect public health and the environment. Follow @PublicHealth to learn more about the Twitter Chat! Use #SafeWater in your tweets, so users can easily search for what you and others are saying during the event. RSVP here.