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Earthjustice Director Discusses Water Insecurity in the U.S.

Water is a human right, yet it still remains inaccessible to many Ameircans, according to Jeremy Orr, the director of litigation and advocacy partnerships at Earthjustice.

“As far as I’m concerned, water is a human right, however, the laws that are in place to ensure safe water don’t coincide with my sentiments,” he said.

Orr joined Boston College’s Rappaport Center Senior Fellow in Residence Community Address for a discussion on water insecurity March 14. Earthjustice, a nonprofit, public-interest environmental law organization, advocates for how a focus on climate justice can help marginalized communities.

Orr recalled his family’s struggle to access and afford water growing up in Detroit. He and his family had to cut out water to pay for other expenses, he said.

“Both of my parents worked full time, and yet there were still times that we could not afford our water,” he said. “The fight for clean water is personal to me because I know what it feels like to not have water. No one should ever have to deal with that.”

Orr said he looks at water accessibility in two ways: water safety and water security.

“By safety I mean ‘If I have liberal access to water in my home, is it actually safe to drink?’” he said. “By security, I mean ‘Am I secure in access to that?’”

Statistics show that clean water in the U.S is largely inaccessible, according to Orr.

“According to the US Water Alliance, more than 2 million Americans don’t have access to running water in their homes,” Orr said. “Nearly 60 million are exposed to contaminated water coming out of their tap, and an estimated one in 20 households have had their water shut off by their local water utility.”

Orr said that the Safe Drinking Water Act, which aims to set safe and healthy standards for public drinking water, governs over 90 percent of U.S. water systems, but it is unsuccessful in protecting minority communities.

“The current law, as it exists, has failed to protect people,” he said. “That failure has disproportionately impacted vulnerable communities, particularly communities of color. … The data shows that communities of color tend to face [water accessibility and contamination issues] at higher rates.”

A study, called Watered Down Justice, conducted by environmental groups showed the relationship of socioeconomic and demographic status and drinking water violations, according to Orr.

“The report confirmed that certain communities were experiencing drinking water violations at higher rates than others,” he said. “Those communities tended to be communities of color, low-income communities, areas with more non-native English speakers, [and] areas with more people living under crowded housing conditions.”

When cities become bankrupt, like Detroit did in 2014, they often shut off water, leaving citizens water insecure, according to Orr.

“Detroit initiated the largest residential water shut off in U.S. history,” Orr said. “The United Nations declared this a human rights violation.”

Orr suggested that cities should be more transparent in their reporting to allow decision makers to pass adequate legislation.

“[One solution is] stronger, more protective rules at the federal and state levels,” he said. “Transparency and required reporting on certain consumer measures. … Decision makers want to see the data that shows that this is an actual problem”

Viewing water as a commodity rather than as a necessary human right is dangerous, according to Orr.

“[Water] shouldn’t be commodified and monetized in the way that it is in the United States,” he said. “We’ve been paying for it for so long [that] it’s easy to forget that water is a natural resource in abundance that’s necessary to sustain life. I think it should be available and accessible, in its cleanest form, to all.”

Featured Image by Ben Schultz / For the Heights

March 17, 2022
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