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Public Water Systems Can Help the War on Poverty

(Photo by Tom Rafferty under a Creative Commons license)

No army can win a war without water. (Dysentery took more lives in the U.S. Civil War than battle wounds.) That holds equally true for the war on poverty.

The current conversation this week about the War on Poverty is long overdue; especially welcome is a noisy clamor to raise the minimum wage. At the same time, families’ budgets are burdened by the increase in basic living expenses.. An important front in the war on poverty is shrinking those expenses. Let’s take a look at water.

An accounting might start with the nearly $500 average that US household spends on water. On top of that, figure in a family’s share of the $14 billion that US households spend on bottled water—to some degree motivated by a lack of trust in public water. Then there’s an important savings to take stock of – your reduced health care costs due to good quality water. With health care costs headed to the moon, that savings could be significant.

So upon first glance, the news released by the US Conference of Mayors spelling out increased municipal spending for water and sanitation seems highly favorable.

“The historical spending record clearly establishes local government as the dominant investor in public water, and by virtue of the investment also establishes local government as a critical water environment steward. Combined public water and wastewater investment is estimated to be $1.77 trillion from 1972 to 2010: $981.4 billion for water supply; and, $796.4 billion for wastewater systems.”

While this investment in the water commons is terrific news the Mayors’ report expresses, “A serious concern for local government is the disproportionate financial impact on families at or below the poverty level, … because user fees command a greater percentage of their annual incomes. This disparate financial impact is regressive.”

The investment is also inadequate. The Conference of Mayors estimates that, “investment needs over the 20 year horizon (2008-2028) is likely in the range of $2.8 to $4.8 trillion.” Most municipalities have already issued all the bonds they can without undermining their credit ratings so taxes and water rates have been rising to pay the costs.

The mayors support “the widely held view by Americans that water is a common good owned by everyone, and government should retain the authority to deliver it locally/regionally.” Yet they note that water is becoming unaffordable, hampered by current rate structures, which they find antiquated. They call for “a fresh look at local affordability and national water policy.”

How can we care for this commons and guarantee the right to water and sanitation without driving families deeper into poverty? An article in Forbes magazine raises the possibility of a Clean Water Trust Fund as a solution for how to raise the money more equitably. “In a 2009 study, the U.S. Government Accountability Office considered how to raise $10 billion annually for the fund and suggested that payment come from industries that profit from water or damage its quality, including those that make beverages, fertilizers and pesticides, flushable products, pharmaceuticals, water appliances and plumbing fixtures.” Such a fund is supported by Food and Water Watch.

At the same time, enormous savings in the water sector are possible through innovation with green or natural infrastructure water recycling, permeable surfaces instead of channeling all storm water into waste water treatment, and using one grade of water for drinking and another for showers and other uses. Upstream watershed management – especially with water utilities at the helm – also holds great promise for large savings, as New York City has proven in its partnership with upstate farmers.

Worldwide, the links between poverty reduction, public health and access to clean and affordable water are even more dramatic. For the billions of people without clean water and sanitation, climbing out of poverty is even more daunting and unfair when they must care for sick children infected by tainted water.

Fifty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for water hoses to be used against anti-poverty and civil rights campaigners. Following in their footsteps, and taking a cue from the bible’s Isaiah, we might try bending those hoses into clean, affordable water for all.

Daniel Moss is Coordinator of Our Water Commons (a project of On the Commons) and active in the Reclaiming Public Water Network. He has recently published a report on public water utility investments in water source protection and watershed conservation entitled “Urban Water Utilities and Upstream Communities Working Together”.

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