Handwashing helps prevent the spread of Coronavirus? What if you don’t have access to water?

Handwashing helps prevent the spread of Coronavirus? What if you don’t have access to water?

Handwashing is one way to help prevent getting and spreading Coronavirus, according to the CDC and WHO, but many people don’t have ready access to water.

Handwashing is Difficult When You Lack Access to Water

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), washing your hands is one of three steps you should take (in addition to wearing a mask and physically distancing yourself from others) to avoid getting and prevent spreading the Coronavirus. Anyone who has ever needed to wash dirty hands but couldn’t find a sink, knows that handwashing can be difficult when you don’t have access to running water.

But this is the United States of America! We’re a water-rich country where everyone has access to clean, plentiful water flowing from all the faucets, right? For more than two million Americans, the story is a little different, because they lack access to water. 

Just who are these unfortunate souls that lack access to what should be a human right? In such a water rich country, why don’t they have any water? The answers might surprise you.

The Water Access Gap is Deep and Wide

Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States,” released by DigDeep and the US Water Alliance, looked at (pre-COVID and pre-2020-hurricane-season) federal water data and identified six water-stressed areas within the United States with inadequate access to water and wastewater services. Then they spent more than a year assessing how residents’ lives were affected. 

The six communities include:

  • California: Tulare County (Central Valley);
  • Arizona, New Mexico, Utah: The Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region;
  • Texas: Colonias in numerous counties throughout the western part of the state;
  • Alabama and Mississippi: Numerous rural counties and regions;
  • West Virginia: Rural, Appalachian counties; and
  • Puerto Rico: Eastern regions (pre- and post-Hurricane Maria).

The reasons why people in those communities lack access to running water vary: wells polluted by agriculture and industry; a lack of basic or damaged and inoperative infrastructure; surface water contaminated by runoff; etc. No matter the reason, the result is the same – life is much more difficult and unsafe. 

Here’s what they found:

  • 1,400,000 – The number of people in the United States (250,000 of whom are in Puerto Rico) who lack access to indoor plumbing.
  • 44,000,000 – The number of people who are served by water systems that had recent Safe Drinking Water Act violations.
  • 23 percent – The number of private wells tested by the United States Geological Survey showed contaminants that affect health, including arsenic, uranium, nitrates and E. coli.
  • 19 and 2 – Native American households are 19 times as likely as white households to lack indoor plumbing, and Black and Latino households are twice as likely.
  • 553,000 – The number of people in the United States who lack access to regular water and sanitation due to homelessness.

On top of this, there is a growing number of people in the United States who have (or had) access to safe drinking water but they can’t afford to pay their water bills. As a result of financial problems, those people have lost access to their water after water authorities turned off their supply.

In fact, a recent Circle of Blue investigation found that more than 1.5 million households in 12 major US cities owe $1.1 billion in past-due water bills, and many of those past due bills have resulted in water shutoffs. In many communities, water rates have soared (almost double the inflation rate on average), while income has stagnated, or even dissipated as many face COVID-19-related unemployment. There is no national count of just how many people face shut offs because the number is in flux as many become unable to pay their bills or lose their jobs. 

Some states issued moratoriums on water shutoffs at the beginning of the pandemic, but those have expired or will expire soon. There is some hope. US Representatives Harley Rouda (D-California) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) have urged CDC officials to enact a moratorium on water shutoffs for those who are delinquent on their utility bills due to the Coronavirus pandemic, similar to the moratoriums issued on evictions due to lack of rent payments.

Water is a Fundamental Human Right in the United States. Or is it?

In the richest country in the world, these numbers are staggering. Water is a fundamental human need. We can’t exist without it, yet not everyone considers it a human right, so not everyone places the same high value on it.

Infrastructure that brings such modern conveniences as indoor plumbing to so many is – or used to be – a defining feature of the United States. In the past, the country made major federal investments in water and wastewater infrastructure, but those days are gone and federal investments are a small percentage of what they used to be. 

In addition, we have reached what the American Water Works Association refers to as “The Dawn of the Replacement Age,” where our infrastructure has reached its life expectancy and must be replaced. Otherwise  we risk major failures, leaving many more of us with deteriorating water quality and a potential loss of access. 

That such a large portion of the country exists without an abundant supply of safe water and proper management of wastewater is beyond what many can comprehend. Given the assault that Coronavirus has made on many people’s health and livelihoods, though, the number of people who can’t afford their water bills is likely to grow, along with the numbers of those losing their homes. 

As 2020 rolls toward a painful close with raging wildfires, a still-active hurricane season and a still growing pandemic, we have a chance to refocus our national priorities. Public policy and infrastructure that supports full access to clean abundant water is and always will be a path towards technological improvements, a healthy economy, a higher standard of living and the creation of career sustaining jobs. It’s an important consideration as we close out this current election cycle. We should “put our money where our water is” for the health of the country and its people.

This year we are partnering with the Value of Water Campaign for “Imagine a Day Without Water” on October 21st. What would your day be like if you didn’t have water to drink, bathe in or to wash your hands with? 

Written by Robin Madel. Image: Closeup woman washing hands by Siam.