Melissa Harris-Perry: Hey you all. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. This is how my day begins.
Melissa: 5:30 AM, time to make the radio.
Melissa: The coffee pot is dry. Let me fix that.
Melissa: That caffeine was critical. Now, I'm going out here and feeding and water these chickens. Morning ladies. Nobody's up. Too dark? Here we go. Come on.
Dorian: I'm Dorian Warren, and this is how my day starts.
Dorian Warren: Baby. I'm coming. Daddy's coming.
Melissa: Dorian, I figured that on nearly every day of the week, I use water maybe five times and at least three different locations in my house or yard all before 6:30 in the morning.
Dorian: Melissa, that sounds about right for me too, because every day of the week I use water at least five times and at least four different locations in my house all before 7:00 AM.
Melissa: Yet, to be honest Dorian, water is such a reliable, regular fixture of my day-to-day life that it had become, frankly, invisible. I just was never thinking about it until two weeks ago, when I started my day and discovered this.
Dorian: Why? What's going on?
Melissa: I am not proud of this. It's not some great story of injustice, just apparently in the absolute onslaught of work and family obligations in the past few months, I failed to pay the water bill. I just forgot. Now to be clear, it's the only household bill that comes as mail rather than electronically. Truth be told, I haven't touched this ever growing mail avalanche since about August when school restarted for me and the girls. The solution for me was pretty easy. I called them up, I paid, and by the end of the day water was restored. In just those few hours, I got to tell you, I was shaken for my drowsy complacency about water access. That complacency is even more embarrassing than forgetting to pay the water bill. Dorian, apparently water access is a full-on environmental economic and social problem, both globally and domestically.
Dorian: Yes, it is Melissa. That's exactly where we begin on today's episode of The Takeaway, because it's time for a deep dive into water.
Melissa: How do we even begin Dorian? Water isn't just a big topic, it's huge. Do we start with the chemical formula H2O?
Speaker 1: Two portions hydrogen, one portion oxygen equals H2O.
Melissa: We know that water makes up 71% of the Earth's surface and something like 60% of adult human bodies are constituted by water. Are we going to even talk about this disorienting new theory in astrophysics, which has entirely rewritten out understanding of the origins of water on earth? Now, apparently scientists have evidence that water may have been stored in the rocks of the earth in a pre-stellar age before even the emergence of stars.
Dorian: Calm down. Relax. I don't think we need to dive quite that deep Melissa, but why don't we start in the same place that got you interested in this issue? That is the lived experience of water.
Dr. Sera Young: I don't have a PhD in water, but I do have a PhD that trained me to really listen.
Dorian: This is Dr. Sera Young. She is an-
Dr. Sera Young: Associate professor of anthropology and global health at Northwestern University.
Dorian: Professor young has been researching how to measure household level water insecurity and how to understand its consequences. Her interest in water began during a food insecurity study in Kenya. She asked women to use a camera to document what aspects of their lives shaped how they fed their children.
Dr. Sera Young: There were all these pictures of water, and pictures of water that are fascinating. Women were talking about having the porridge to make for their kids, but not having water to make it. Women talked about having to choose between either using this disgusting sewage water from a prison and having money to buy food, or buying water and not having any money of food. Women talked about getting beaten up if there wasn't water in the house, that was a legitimate, and I use that term ironically, reason for violence. I listened to these women and I saw there was a real need to measure water insecurity differently.
Melissa: Dorian, a childhood memory rushed back to me as we were listening to Sarah's story. As a kid growing up in the early 1970s, my favorite candy bar was and still is the Nestle hundred grand.
Speaker 2: What would you do with a hundred grand?
Speaker 3: I'd eat it.
Dorian: Carry on.
Melissa: I distinctly remember standing in the grocery store checkout line, pestering my mom to buy this candy for me. When she refused, she explained, "You can't have anything made by Nestle because they're killing children in Africa."
Dorian: Wait, pause. Your mom said what?
Melissa: She did. By the way, she was right. Professor Young told me so.
Dr. Sera Young: Your mom is smart. I love political mothers.
Melissa: In 1974, the London based advocacy organization The War on Want published a booklet titled Baby Killer. Now, it laid out results of an investigation into how the baby formula industry, led by Nestle, was aggressively marketing baby formula to women living in impoverished nations. The marketing claimed the commercial baby formula was superior to breast milk, and it made women feel insufficient if they chose to rely on breastfeeding. It offered free samples, both to new mothers and to hospitals. Now Dorian, there's a lot wrong with all of this, but one big problem had to do with water.
Of course, Baby Formula has to be mixed with water, and many of the women living in these impoverished nations did not have reliable access to clean water. Mixing the formula with tainted water and lacking access to water to boil and sterilize bottles, and often lacking access to water even to wash hands before preparation, it had dire consequences for thousands of infants who died of diarrhea and malnutrition as a result.
Dorian: Melissa, I must admit, I've never heard about this global baby formula marketing campaign before. This memory adds insight to Professor Young's insistence that we begin with lived experience in the scientific study of water insecurity. This is how Professor Young and her international consortium of colleagues developed a broadly valid measure for understanding those lived experiences of water.
Dr. Sera Young: You can think of it as four domains. The first domain physical availability. Is there water out there somewhere to be had? The second domain is access. If it's out there somewhere, can I get to it? The third domain is use and there's water that's acceptable for, for example, watering your crops, but you wouldn't want to brush your teeth with it. The fourth domain is reliable or stable. If water is there and you can get to it and you get it for all your uses, does that happen one day a month, does it happen every day?
Melissa: Now what Sera is describing is the household water insecurity experiences, or the HY scale. Now she and her Northwestern University colleagues, they partnered with UNESCO and the Gallup Organization, and they fielded surveys in 31 countries around the world. This HY scale, it's the first time researchers have been able to determine the extent of global water insecurity. Considering water across these domains of availability, access, acceptability for use and reliability, it allowed something pretty stunning to emerge. At least half the global population, about 4 billion people experience water insecurity at least a month out of every year.
This insecurity has meaningful effects on the physical and mental health from infancy through adulthood. Professor Young walked us through how the HY scale helped researchers get a better understanding of these effects.
Dr. Sera Young: Probably the best understood way that water is harmful to young children is if it's contaminated, but it shaped infant feeding in other ways. For example, if moms were really dehydrated, they felt out like they weren't producing enough breast milk. If moms had to go wait in line a long way away, they would leave their baby with a neighbor, and therefore they couldn't breastfeed them. They couldn't prepare the food for the babies that they wanted to if water wasn't around to boil the food to make it soft enough. Water touches the wellbeing of children, nutritional and otherwise, in a lot of other ways that remain invisible if we're not measuring water in a holistic way.
Dorian: Talking about measurement and research might not seem like critical policy or advocacy, but it's truly foundational for understanding and addressing social inequities.
Dr. Sera Young: The parallels between food and water insecurity are very real. We used to measure food security based on how many calories are available in a country and dividing that by the number of people in the country and saying, "There's enough calories here." That's cuckoo bonkers. I mean, we now know that by measuring food insecurity we can predict depression, school performance, even suicidal tendencies. I think we're starting to get to that era of water security measurement, where we see that even these softer experiences predict really dramatic outcomes and that's going to help policymakers to prioritize water to be the unique and irreplaceable resource that it is.
Dorian: Then to truly illustrate this point, Professor Young took us even deeper. Water insecurity is not only a global and professional matter for her. It turns out that water is an issue in her own backyard, literally.
Dr. Sera Young: I'm an anthropologist. My husband is a synthetic biologist and when our kids aren't interrupting us at dinner, we sometimes talk about our work. I told him water and security is really important issue and he said, "I think I can use this synthetic biology technology to do rapid tests for contaminants." I think of it like a pregnancy test for water. He and his group have since developed rapid at-home tests for lead. We use these tests to test our own lead. We had really, really high lead, scary high lead, at our house. We live in a house that's older than a hundred years. In fact, Chicago, we're number one. We have the most lead lines in all of the nation.
Melissa: For those of you who don't know Dorian, well he's a native Chicagoan.
Dorian: That's right Melissa. Born and raised on the South side of Chicago. My very first job at 16 was as a lifeguard on the beach, a very good union job by the way. We have miles and miles of beaches on lake Michigan and Chicago. I remember spending a lot of time, usually at the crack of Dawn when nobody was there, just walking along the beach and staring into the great abyss of our great lake. Melissa, I remember thinking how plentiful this lake, that really looks like an ocean, seemed. I mean, I could have never imagined the words water and scarcity or water and insecurity going together. It just never occurred to me.
Then my six year old nephew a couple of years ago got lead Poisoning on the South side. The moment that professor Young from Northwestern talked about the lead pipe issue and the city that I grew up in, my family still resides in, I knew we had to take this water discussion back home to Chi-Town.
Commissioner Justina Morita: My name is Justina Morita, I'm a commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago here representing all of Cook County in Illinois.
Melissa: We know you might not know what a water reclamation district is, so I asked Commissioner Morita.
Commissioner Justina Morita: I always say we're the most important agency that nobody knows exists. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago covers all of Cook County's storm and sewer water. That's over 5 million people. We're the largest in the world.
Dorian: Now Melissa, we turned our attention to Chicago because Professor Young told us about finding elevated lead levels in her family's drinking water. We asked Commissioner Morita about it.
Commissioner Justina Morita: I live here in Cook County and Chicago, where not only did we not ban lead pipes while other states were doing it, we actually continued to require the use of lead pipes in the Chicago land area up until the federal band in the 1980s. These lead pipes contaminate our water and have long-term health risks, especially to children and pregnant women. We have to be really careful and conscious about where our water is coming from and we're really excited at this moment right now with the federal infrastructure bill to really look at how do we move forward to fix this problem long-term.
Dorian: The commissioner shared with us her enthusiasm about the ways that the new infrastructure bill has made these repairs possible with a significant investment of federal dollars.
Commissioner Justina Morita: It's going to be a big undertaking both financially but also the day-to-day inconvenience that a lot of us will see over the next 10 years to the average person. It's such a inconvenience to people who don't think about water, who take that turning on the faucet for granted, but this is a real investment in the future of this country that people like me are really excited about.
Dorian: Now the infrastructure bill signed by President Biden allocate significant resources to ensure water security for all Americans. According to the White House, it's something like 10 million households and 400,000 schools and childcare centers don't have access to clean and safe drinking water. To put a monetary amount on that investment in the bill, the legislation sets aside $15 billion for replacing led pipes nationwide. It also includes $10 billion for getting chemicals known as PFAS out of drinking water. Something you've covered right here on The Takeaway Melissa, in terms of these PFAS known as forever chemicals.
Now on top of that, there's $30 billion earmarked for overhauling wastewater management systems and sewage systems, many of which need adjustments in order to continue functioning as storms get more severe due to climate change.
Melissa: The infrastructure bill, it's a critically important piece of legislation. It's going to have real effects for water safety, access and availability for the residents of Chicago and for thousands of communities across the country. It still doesn't address all the thorny issues. I mean, we've been talking about water access and availability as though it's a single issue for all households in any given community, but research shows the Black and Latinx households are nearly twice as likely to lack complete plumbing as compared to white households. When a community has a high concentration of people of color, then it also has a much higher percentage of homes that lack adequate plumbing.
Dorian: We also know that many poor and working class households simply have their water turned off. Let's dive a little deeper.
Commissioner Justina Morita: I think we've seen the dangers of shutting off people's water due to inability to pay. The studies show that a national moratorium on water shut offs could have saved over 9,000 lives in terms of COVID deaths and over half a million COVID cases. When people have their water shut off, they're moving in with other family members. They are sometimes trying to connect to other people's water and unsanitary ways. They're having to make dangerous choices. People oftentimes in Chicago, they have these $1,000 water bills and they move just because of their water bill. They're moving from place to place. Their children are changing schools. People are living out of their cars.
I mean, these are the kind of stories that we hear from people who are having their water bill shut off because they can't pay, and a water bill that maybe started as $50, with all of the additional fees and all of the things that happen, end up being $13,000 water bills.
Dorian: Like inadequate plumbing and unsafe drinking water, water shut offs are connected to racial inequity.
Commissioner Justina Morita: We know that it's largely low income communities of color that are being impacted by these water shut offs. That it's low-income communities, actually not so much in the city of Chicago, but in the south suburban areas here in Illinois, that have had massive water contamination issues. We actually just got off of a water shut off no drinking water notice in Dixmoor, which is a small, largely African-American suburb here in Cook County area. We've seen that the majority of water quality, water access, water affordability issues are happening in communities of color, to Native American communities across the country.
There's nothing more fundamental than that access to clean drinking water. If you don't have that, you really don't have much else. Making sure that communities of color are at the forefront of these conversations, as those that have been most impacted by the lack of access, lack of affordability, lack of quality drinking water, being dismissed and ignored when they have concerns and issues about the quality of their drinking water and the impact it has on their children. These are the conversations that we need to have about why water is not just this over there environmental white people issue. It is at home in communities of color every day.
Melissa: As we're discussing Chicago, it's probably tempting to think of water problems as issues in cities, but we talk with someone who helped us understand that rural areas are particularly hard hit.
Professor Tom Miller: Tom Miller. I am a research assistant professor of geography and environmental sustainability at the University of Oklahoma.
Melissa: Now professor Miller reminded us that our personal homes, that's actually not where we're using the most water.
Professor Tom Miller: Maybe you might think of us using it at the household level. That is not by far the largest use of water, particularly in the United States. The largest use of water in the United States is thermoelectric power and then also we use a lot for agriculture and for irrigation.
Melissa: He helped us understand why we should not overlook water issues in rural areas.
Professor Tom Miller: Lots of rural areas are seeing persistent out with migration, which is impacting a tax base which basically makes it really hard for community water systems to update what's going on. When it comes to reservations, you also have the issue where tribal nations don't have access to the same federal resources as non reservation rural areas. It becomes even harder and there's an entirely vexing bureaucratic patchwork that makes it really difficult to get anything fixed, particularly in the reservation context.
Dorian: Now we're turning to a very different part of the country, Navajo Nation.
Melissa: Navajo Nation is the country's largest reservation, at just over 27,000 square miles and about 190,000 residents. Navajo Nation touches three states, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. For Navajo Nation, water is a multifaceted challenge. Way back in August we talked here on The Takeaway about one layer of this issue, the water shortage in the Colorado River. The Colorado River supplies water 40 million people, irrigates 6 million acres of land and generates more than 4000 megawatts of hydro power from its dams. Also, the Colorado River is drying up.
The Colorado feeds Lake Mead, the nation's largest manmade reservoir. Lake Mead is now only 35% full, that's the lowest level since it was created nearly a hundred years ago. Now my guest that day was Bidtah Becker, an attorney with the Navajo travel utility authority, who explained the disproportionate impact on Indian Country.
Attorney Bidtah Becker: The hydro power is the cheapest power we can buy. When hydro power gets threatened and then we have to go out and purchase higher cost power, we're just further impacting the challenges that our people are facing.
Melissa: Then she told us-
Attorney Bidtah Becker: Grab a map and look at the border between Arizona and California. There are five tribes along that stretch of the river who have long lived there and one of them is named the Cocopah tribe. The center of their universe is their river. The center of everything they believe in is the river, so when the river dries up or goes away you're taking out the center of their being.
Dorian: Melissa, when Attorney Becker told us to grab a map, she was giving us a map for thinking about the specific experiences of water and Navajo Nation. To lean in more, we sat down with Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation.
President Jonathan Nez: 30 to 40% of our Navajo citizens don't have running water. Believe it or not, I as the president of the largest tribe in the country, the Navajo Nation, my family don't have access to running water. We haul water, it takes us 30 miles, 60 miles round trip to get water. Getting 250 gallon or more containers in back of your truck taking it to a water well, waiting in line, because there's a lot of people usually. You take it back home and cattle and horses and sheep and goats, that's where we would first get water to our animals. Then for farming too, growing season, getting water to those plants.
Then afterwards you take the rest of the water back to the house for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Once the water's all gone you got to do another trip to get another load of water for the next couple of days or so.
Dorian: President Nez linked this individual household level experience of water insecurity to the broader environmental and political questions of water availability and access.
President Jonathan Nez: The drought and because of what's happening in the Southwest in terms of the need for water, we can see that it'll be a contentious issue. The Navajo Nation is in discussions of our water rides. In Arizona we have to continue to educate state leaders about the need for a permanent homeland for our Navajo citizens. We just want our fair share for to continue to establish our permanent homeland for our Navajo people.
Attorney Bidtah Becker: My name is Bidtah Becker. I'm an attorney with the Navajo tribal utility authority and I'm also on the leadership team for the Water and Tribes Initiative in the Colorado River Basin.
Dorian: Attorney Becker returned to The Takeaway to talk with us for this deep dive.
Attorney Bidtah Becker: For many communities, their source of clean drinking water is their local government. It's the person living down the street. For a Native American community, it's the members of Congress. In 1959 Congress created a program called the Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Program specifically to address clean drinking water to homes. In the '50s the term used as sanitation. Now we would use the term clean or safe drinking water.
Dorian: This is a reference to public law 86-121. It was signed by president Eisenhower back in 1959. It authorizes the Surgeon General to construct essential sanitation facilities for American Indian and Alaska Native homes and communities.
Melissa: Wait, the surgeon general?
Dorian: Yes, exactly. Rather than defining water primarily as physical infrastructure, this act recognizes that the provision of adequate sanitation and water, Melissa, it's truly a public health issue. Since 1959, federal resources have reached more than a quarter million homes and helped to improve health in Indian Country. Attorney Becker helped us understand that the progress has been halting and inadequate.
Attorney Bidtah Becker: The Indian Health Service would port every year what is called the Sanitation Deficiency List. This is a known list that the federal government creates of known sanitation deficiencies. The federal government knows these problems exists. The IHS request funding, they were only getting a few million dollars a year. They would report that, given the level of funding they have and the backlog, once they received funding it would take about six years to get the project built. You're looking at 10 years before somebody gets their clean drinking water system built at their home.
I think, fundamentally, that's the story that's very hard to tell, is how many people have we lost? I don't mean just passed away, but I mean who've been forced to move away from their traditional homelands, the lands that our grandmas and grandpas fought for us. How many of these people have had to leave because it's very hard to hold a nine to five job when you can't take a shower in the morning and make your coffee and use a flushable toilet?
Dorian: In 2019, researchers from the US Water Alliance released a report titled Closing the Water Access Gap. They found that Native Americans face more water access issues than any other group. The report indicates that many living in Navajo Nation have fewer than 10 gallons of water at home at any given time. Just to understand what that means, Melissa, the average American uses 88 gallons of water every single day. As attorney Becker told us, this is not a new problem. Inadequate water access has plagued Indian Country for decades. In a somewhat surprising turn, the COVID-19 pandemic brought these inequities to light for many in the broader American public.
Attorney Bidtah Becker: Again, this issue has been going on for a long time. It really hit home what it means to lack access to clean drinking water, and the pandemic really shined a light on what sanitation means.
Melissa: With this new attention came new resources for solutions. Here again is Jonathan Nez, President of Navajo nation.
President Jonathan Nez: There's a lot of lessons learned throughout this pandemic, and we see that improving through some of the bills that are being introduced and that are being improved. We appreciate the administration and our congressional delegation for hearing us.
Melissa: We turn now to the state of Michigan, so let's start in Flint. Dorian, I am sure you remember back in 2014 when an unelected so-called emergency manager was appointed by Michigan's governor and tasked with reducing Flint's municipal deficit. In order to cut costs, this manager switched the city's water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, but the river water was corrosive and it caused the city's pipes to leach led into the drinking water of homes, schools, and businesses in this predominantly Black working-class city.
Dorian: That was probably our nation's biggest public health disaster of the last 50 years until the onset of the COVID pandemic.
Melissa: The pandemic, I know folks may have stopped following water news out of Flint in recent months. Here are a few quick updates. In January of this year, the former governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, and seven other public officials were charged with 42 criminal accounts resulting from their involvement with the crisis. On the civil side, just last week, a federal judge approved a $626 million settlement for Flint residents who were victims of this mass poisoning of the city.
Dorian: It's tough to hold public officials accountable for the many harms they do to communities, Melissa, and especially economically marginal communities of color. Flint is not the only community in Michigan facing a serious and going case of water injustice.
Reverend Roslyn Bouier: My name is Reverend Roslyn Bouier. I am the executive director of the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry.
Dorian: We spoke with Reverend Boer about the disastrous effects of widespread water shutoffs, which began in Detroit in 2014. The shutoffs were part of a debt collection policy where the city shut off water to anyone who fell behind by $150. According to reporting from the Guardian, this policy meant that by the start of the pandemic in early 2020, at least 2,800 occupied homes were without running water.
Reverent Roslyn Bouier: If you are unable to pay your water bill, your water is shut off. You are disconnected from having access to clean, affordable drinking water. Families have been forced to exist without having water, so when your water is shut off, you are unable to flush a toilet. You're unable to get rid of waste in the home. You are unable to clean, cook experience any of those things that we consider to be everyday norms.
Dorian: The problem was especially acute in the community of Brightmoor. Being without water is much more than just an inconvenience for individual households, it's created yet another public health crisis.
Reverend Roslyn Bouier: The other pandemic that ravaged throughout Brightmoor in the city of Detroit has been hepatitis A. Hepatitis A is due to the lack of sanitary conditions. When the pandemic hit and the moratorium was not fully executed, meaning everybody's water was not restored, much less water was stopped from being shut off. Folks had to throw their waste out in the garbage. Prior to COVID 19, the city of Detroit mandated that the sanitation workers here be required to take hepatitis A shot because they were fully aware of the danger that was going on with not having water running in homes and waste being thrown out into the streets.
Melissa: Then Reverend Bouier explained why it is essentially impossible for people who are struggling economically to have their water restored once it's been turned off.
Reverend Roslyn Bouier: First of all, you have to pay $150 just to have water turned on in your home. That's a deposit fee. Then you have water bills, but the water bills became so unaffordable because the city attached on a sewage bill, a drainage bill. What that looks like is the water that runs off your roof, runs down your gutters into the ground, people are charged for that. That's the drainage fees. Then when your water shut off, you have a disconnection fee. To get your water turned back on, if that is even possible, you have to pay the deposit, everything that's in the rearage and the disconnection fee, so it becomes impossible to be connected back to the water system.
Melissa: Now being without water, especially during a pandemic that is horrifying but I have to tell you, I could barely fathom the idea that a municipal policy of shutting off water for an unpaid $150 could actually threaten a mother's custody of her child.
Reverend Roslyn Bouier: In Brightmoor what was happening is that, whereas it would normally take a little while, it takes at least 30 to 60 days before the children were removed from the homes, in Brightmoor they began to come out and take the children the very same day that the water was shut off and. To move this conversation into the forefront of century and Blackness because, as I said, the largest population that has been shut off for water has been Black women with small children. We know that when children are removed from the home and placed in foster care system, there's a high propensity that these foster care children will end up in the penal system.
Dorian: Melissa. I just have to say I was struck that Reverend Bouier did not see these practices as simply sad or tragic. She described them as intentional and strategic.
Reverend Roslyn Bouier: It was always intended to move folks off the land, to move the families out of these communities, because everyone, I'm sure, hears about Detroit's comeback. That's 7.2 square miles of downtown Detroit. Detroit encompasses 144 square miles, but of those 137 miles, we have the outer areas of families who are trying to live and exist. The largest population of which oftentimes is Black women with small children in these densely populated communities, such as Brightmoor.
Dorian: To further emphasize this point, she told us that the only laundromat in the community had to be closed to make room for a new grocery co-op. Now, while Brightmoor residents do live with food insecurity, she clearly understood this policy choice to be an indication of purposeful gentrification.
Reverend Roslyn Bouier: In a community with the highest population of water shutoffs, was the only access to one laundry mat tells you that for the laundromat to be closed down and be converted into a food co-op, that says, "This is for the people who are coming, not for the ones who are here." It also tells you that green plants that growing on black dirt can get water while Black children cannot.
Melissa: When we decided to take a deep dive into water, I had no idea it was going to lead us to so many places.
Dorian: So many places, Melissa, we've heard about how water insecurity affects infant and adult health and poor nations across the globe and we've listened to the heart-wrenching realities of water inequality right here at home in Chicago, in Detroit, and in Navajo Nation.
Melissa: Of course we've seen that water is not just about lived experience. It is a political battleground. Professor Sera Young offered us a great quote for thinking about it.
Professor Sera Young: Mark Twain said that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. That may or may not be misattributed to him, but it's a good line either way in the sense that governments do recognize that water is an important resource for economic productivity and health and political stability.
Dorian: Let's be honest, whiskey has caused a few fights too, but the point is well taken. Determining who has access to water, how they get that access, and how much they must pay for it are all questions about power.
Professor Sera Young: Of course, questions about power are always matters of politics. Of course, Dorian, we've all been watching politics at work as DC lawmakers passed and signed into law this historic infrastructure bill. The resources made available by this new law are potentially game-changing for many communities, particularly among Native Americans. Here's Bidtah Becker of the Navajo tribal utility authority.
Attorney Bidtah Becker: I believe it's a sea change. Like I said, for the first time in my life, the first time in the history of the country, we're seeing full funding. It's something that I never thought we would've seen. It took a pandemic but I would argue that that the people of this country are responding. I hate to use the term right, but I think it is the right way. We have years of work ahead of us. The hard work is ahead because it's going to take a lot of work to deploy this funding, but I remain hopeful.
Dorian: It took a pandemic, but we've had several crises around water and security over the years and decades where frankly water and justices were made crystal clear to all of us, whether Flint or Indian country, and we collectively failed to act. Melissa, water experts continue to create and innovate strategies for just water use and water security. Commissioner Morita shared with us some of the innovative new ways that local decision-makers are thinking about water.
Commissioner Justina Morita: There are some really cool things that are happening around water, both on the drinking water side as well as the waste water side. Drinking water is a finite resource and the way that this country has thought about drinking water is the opposite of the ways that other countries. Illinois, where I live, is one of a handful of states that not only doesn't allow for water recycling but requires that we use potable water for everything. We use potable water to flush our toilets, use potable water for manufacturing. Other countries like Hong Kong, it's illegal to flush your toilet with drinking water.
We're wasting millions and millions, if not billions, of gallons of drinking water as well as the cost that it takes to get water to drinkable status. I sit on the national blue ribbon commission for non potable water systems. I think that in the future we are going to see that we don't just talk about water as one category, but that there are different levels of water that have different levels of uses. That we are wasting incredible amounts of money, incredible amounts of energy and incredible amounts of actual potable drinking water because of what we call water mismatch.
Flushing your toilet with drinking water is a water mismatch. Watering golf courses with drinking water instead of storm water. Doing manufacturing with drinking water instead of treated effluent. These are all things that I think we are going to start to think about and understand water and really ways instead of just one category of good water is drinking water, everything else is bad water.
Dorian: Justice cannot exclude the most vulnerable. In fact, it must center them and it must challenge and alter the narratives that deepen inequality. As Reverend Bouier told us, there is no going back to so-called normal before the pandemic.
Reverend Roslyn Bouier: The narrative that's been running rampant is that with the water affordability, then you'll be paying for someone's water who doesn't want to pay their bill. They're going out and wasting their money and you'll be paying their water bill. That's not true. It's that people cannot afford water. Water affordability plans benefit everyone. I'd like for people to walk away with the fact that this pandemic is still raging. While we've gone back to what we consider to be our normal, what is normal for one person is not a blessing to return to for others. When we say, "Well, we're glad that things are going back to normal," normal doesn't look the same for everyone. Normal was overrated to begin with.
Melissa: Dorian, I know that after this deep dive, I'm never going to think about water in quite the same way again. I'm certainly never going to take it for granted or assume that it simply flows clean, safe, and reliable from the tap for everybody. I will definitely not only be paying my bill, but I'm also going to be paying much more attention to all the ways that water is used to disempower and marginalize and harm rather than being used to sustain and support. I just wanted to say thank you to you again, my friend, for taking time out of your schedule to go on this water journey with me and with the community of The Takeaway.
Dorian: Well, thank you Melissa. Speaking of water, I feel like we just scratched the surface of the proverbial iceberg, where it comes to water security and water justice. Thanks for this deep dive on water.
Melissa: As we sign off, I want to say thank you to all of our guests today. Bidtah Becker, Justina Morita, Reverend Roslyn Bouier, Jonathan Nez, Sera Young, and Tom Miller. We want to leave you with their voices, affirming the core underlying truth they did seem to all agree about when it came to water.
Dr. Sera Young: Human beings are biological entities. We are made up of water. 60% of our body is water. We live on a blue planet. Our planet is made it up of water. Every single human being needs water to survive.
Reverend Roslyn Bouier: Water is a human right. We all deserve fresh, affordable drinking water.
Commissioner Justina Morita: Access to clean drinking water is a human right.
President Jonathan Nez: Water is life.
Professor Tom Miller: One of the sustainable development goals right for the whole world is to have everybody having access to clean water and sanitation.
Attorney Bidtah Becker: That's going to help policy-makers to prioritize water, to be the unique and irreplaceable resource that it is.
Melissa: All right. Do you want to check out all of our deep dives? You can do it by going to thetakeaway.org. Just go to the special projects tab and you'll find the whole series there. I know a lot of you all are going to be traveling over the next few weeks. Go ahead and download them. Stock up now so you can listen in line at the airport or when you're sitting in traffic on the highways and byways. Be a subscriber to our podcast, go to wherever you get your audio and subscribe on The Takeaway. For our crew, rolling deep as always, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.