Sam Ross-Brown

Sam Ross-Brown is The American Prospect's associate editor. 

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The Inequality of Water

(AP Photo)

People stand outside Detroit City Hall, protesting thousands of residential water-service shutoffs by Detroit's water department, during a rally in Detroit, Thursday, July 24, 2014.

Posted by guest-blogger Sam Ross-Brown.

Late last month, the City of Baltimore began notifying thousands of residents that their water may soon be shut off due to lack of payment. As Sarah Lazare reports for Common Dreams, residents owing more than $250 in payments going back at least six months were notified that they had 10 days to pay their bills in full or have their taps shut off. The number of residents who received a notice last month nears 25,000, though Food & Water Watch estimates that a full 75,000 Baltimore residents are in danger of losing running water in their homes.

What’s worse, the shut-offs serve to deepen the racial and economic divisions in a deeply unequal city. Baltimore’s poverty rate is nearly twice the rate nationwide while the cost for utilities like water has jumped more than 40 percent over the past three years. The shut-offs are set to disproportionately impact Baltimore’s large non-white majority, despite the fact that a few hundred businesses collectively owe more than $15 million in unpaid water bills to the city.

Baltimore’s threat to shut off its residents’ water supply echoes a similar move by the City of Detroit in the summer of 2014. As Kristen Doerer reported for the Prospect last August, city officials in Detroit shut off running water to some 17,000 residents who were behind on their payments, most of them poor and non-white. After an international outcry, and an unprecedented warning from the United Nations that the shut-off violated basic human rights, the city backed off. As in Baltimore, households represented the vast majority of water shut-offs, despite private businesses owing more than ten times as much on average.

Although the water crises in Baltimore and Detroit are not climate-based, the experiences of these cities have a lot to say about how the politics of scarcity may play out on a rapidly warming planet.

A case in point is California, which is now in Year Four of the worst drought it’s ever recorded. In response, state officials have mandated a 25 percent across-the-board cut in water use. But oddly, the new mandate exempted industries like agriculture and even fossil-fuel extractors, which together account for more than 80 percent of the state’s water consumption. As in Baltimore and Detroit, residents in California make up a small share of the state’s water footprint—around 20 percent—and yet they’re the ones making the largest sacrifices.  

And while mainstream coverage has spilled a lot of ink over how the cuts will impact the pristine lawns of Pasadena and Orange County, those most impacted will likely be the farm workers of the Central Valley, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. As Julia Wong writes for In These Times, the drought has already led to job losses in the tens of thousands, and threatens thousands more. It’s also led a steep spike in water prices for small towns like Cantua Creek near Fresno, leading many residents to fall behind on payments, risking dry taps. (Sound familiar?) “Farmworkers are not getting any support from the growers,” UFW organizer Antonio Cortes told Wong. “The growers have support from the governor and the federal government, but the farmworkers get nothing.”

What this strategy also means, reports Mark Hertsgaard for The Daily Beast, is that California’s water scarcity will likely just get worse. With reservoirs and mountain snow-packs shrinking faster every year, farmers in the Central Valley are now drilling deeper and deeper to access a limited supply of groundwater. This agricultural version of an arms race not only privileges some of the nation’s largest agribusinesses—the ones that can afford to drill deeper and faster than everybody else—it also threatens the state water system’s last lifeline. “This is the real potential doomsday scenario in California,” Hertsgaard told Democracy Now! A barren aquifer doesn’t mean more cutting back—it means collapse.

In a sense, the real danger of California’s drought, and climate change as a whole, is not that it’ll force us to cut back or make sacrifices. (Imagine an FDR-era response to exceptional drought; this stuff is doable.) It’s that the structural barriers and inequities of our 21st century economy and political system don’t allow for the kind of mass, emergency action that a warming planet demands. As Naomi Klein writes in her latest book, This Changes Everything, climate change is approaching at the worst possible historical moment: At a time when the planet is demanding radical change, “the only kind of contraction our current system can manage is a brutal crash, in which the most vulnerable will suffer most of all.”  

Another way to look at it is that we’ve reached a point where two of the most immediate water crises the country now faces—Baltimore and Detroit—have nothing to do with climate. They exist entirely within a broken economic and social system, and yet they’re every bit as dangerous to public health and human rights as California’s record-breaking drought. Responding to climate change in a serious way not only means taking a hard look at our energy systems and lifestyles. It also means addressing how the politics of water and carbon impact the realities of inequality and injustice.   

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