Tuesday Feb 25

Back Story: Is Water an Environmental or Poverty Issue or Both?

I write this on a Sunday from Kampala, Uganda, where I’m hunkered down and finally pulling the pieces of this issue together and trying to catch up on the work that invariably knows no time, when plane and travel schedules dominate my days. I just looked at the calendar and realized that in the month of December, I will only be at home some pieces of three days. And, yet, I still count myself lucky.

Recently, I’m noticing something as a recurring theme wherever I seem to look or venture, and that’s water. Water rising in the wake of climate change. Water prices rising in public housing and predatory schemes in slums. Water as a public good and a private profit center. Water that is necessary for life, but is poisoned with impunity in modern economies and with indifference to the poor and lower income families.

In New Orleans, years ago where ACORN, our union, and many allies, fought back an effort to privatize sewer and water services to maintain water as a public good outside of multinational profiteers, the news now slips out that a study was forced by the state legislature over the issue once again. The still secret report indicates they are not ready to wage a new fight over privatization despite its mandatory consideration. At the same time, there are renewed concerns over our coastline and the city itself in the face of rising seas and unabated climate change. The ACORN Farm is even debating a small section as a bioswale to do our part. Our affiliated community organization in the city has come to the reckoning that without much better protection against rising water, severe hurricanes, and the risk of flooding, lower income families will be forced to leave and abandon New Orleans to those with greater wealth, broken in both money and spirit.

Is water an environmental or poverty issue or both?

In Campaigns: Lessons from the Field, just published we included a case study over social housing residents winning a campaign against the rising price of water rates imposed by Veolia in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris that usually is only known to many in France as the poorest district in the country. In Nairobi and Kampala in the slums where we work and that I visited, municipal and state water companies, even where almost half the city lives in such conditions, only furnish water at a fixed price to residential areas where they have provided the infrastructure. In the slums, like Korogocho or Kibera, they allow cartels to provide the “last mile” on the water system at predatory and exorbitant prices and without any warranty of weather the water is clean or potable.

My last stop before catching a plane to Africa was in Detroit where the ACORN Home Savers Campaign is working. In the Motor City, water bills and dangerous water are also ubiquitous and forcing people to lose their homes while poisoning themselves and their families. We continue to fight in Houston, Dallas and other cities for water safety in our schools.

Is water an environmental or poverty issue or both, doesn’t seem like the right question. How can one separate the two issues when they are both intertwined so tightly, especially where inequity is commonplace and the infrastructure is another broken promise when it concerns lower income families? But, is the same concern, funding, and public discussion focusing on the extra burden of water, whether as a daily need or catastrophic climate concern for lower income families as it is for commercial interests and the rich even by environmentalists, politicians, and scientists?

Maybe it’s the travel. Maybe as the year ends, I just need to stay in one place and get my act more tightly together. Or, maybe these themes are like water itself, “everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” just as these issues are proliferating and now seem everywhere without anyone stopping to think. Or, if thinking, able to act, singly and collectively, enough to stop the deluge at least for those with less, not more.

Wade Rathke is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).

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