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It remains the most famous line of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and yes, of course, you know what it is:
"Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink."
In a sense, that sums up America's water problems described so vividly, if painfully, by TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon, if, sadly enough, you were to amend that final line to read "nor any fit to drink." That would, unfortunately, fit the situation in Flint, Michigan, for years, and in other problem areas in the United States where the water supply is still polluted today.
And let me add one note that saddens me in this context: water can be so beautiful, so inspiring in life. What a shame to turn it into a poison of one sort or another. It has, in fact, played a striking role in my own life. I've been a swimmer since I was a boy and in my grown-up years swam in fresh water in the summer and otherwise did laps in a pool (until the coronavirus left me uncomfortable taking a subway to an old gym and locker room daily). Water was the one environment where I found I could stop being me, stop fretting about today and tomorrow. Water was where my brain would wander and I would often discover, to my amazement, what it had been thinking about without giving me a clue. Titles, for instance, for TomDispatch pieces I had yet to write and hadn't even realized I was considering writing, would suddenly float into my head while I swam. For a man who was generally anything but spiritual, that was indeed an experience to savor.
Sadly, there's another side to water, one that's anything but ethereal, one that shouldn't even be part of life in a country as wealthy and powerful as this one if, that is, its top priority were the care of its citizens. No such luck, I'm afraid, as Menon makes all too clear. Tom
The Politics of Water
It's In Your Sink
By Rajan Menon
Think of it this way: what we don't know will hurt us. And water yes, water is an example of just that. Even at a time of such angry political disputes, you might imagine that, in a wealthy country like the United States, it would still be possible to agree that clean water should be not just a right, but a given. Well, welcome to America 2021.
When it comes to basic water supplies, that's hardly an outlandish thought. After all, back in 2015, our government, along with other members of the United Nations, embraced the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals, the sixth of which is universal access to safe drinking water. Despite modest progress globally 71% of the world's population lacked that simple necessity then, "only" 61% today nearly 900 million people still don't have it. Of course, the overwhelming majority of them live in the poorest countries on this planet.
The United States, however, has the world's largest economy, the fifth-highest per-capita income, and is a technological powerhouse. How, then, could the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) have given our water infrastructure (pipes, pumping stations, reservoirs, and purification and recycling facilities) a shocking C- grade in their 2021 "report card"? How to explain why Yale University's Environmental Performance Index ranked the U.S. only 26th globally when it comes to the quality of its drinking water and sanitation?
Worse yet, two million Americans still have no running water and indoor plumbing. Native Americans are 19 times more likely to lack this rudimentary amenity than Whites; Latinos and African Americans, twice as likely. On average, Americans use 82 gallons of water daily; Navajos, seven or the equivalent of about five flushes of a toilet. Moreover, many Native Americans must drive miles to fetch fresh water, making regular handwashing, a basic precaution during the Covid-19 pandemic, just one more hardship.
Washington and Philadelphia are just two of the many American cities whose water-distribution systems, some of them wooden, contain pipes that predate the Civil War. Naturally, time has taken its toll. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that water mains, especially such old ones, rupture 240,000 times annually, while "trillions of gallons" of potable water worth $2.6 billion seep from leaky pipes, and "billions of gallons of raw sewage" pollute the surface water that provides 61% of our supply. Fixing busted pipes, which break at the rate of one every two minutes nationally, has cost nearly $70 billion since 2000.
The U.S. has 2.2 million miles of waterpipes, which are, on average, 45 years old. The EPA's 2015 estimate for overhauling such an aging system of piping was $473 billion, or $23.7 billion annually over 20 years in other words, anything but chump change. Still, compared to the way Congress allots money to the U.S. military for its endless losing wars and eternal build-ups of weaponry, it couldn't be more modest. After all, the Pentagon's latest budget request was for $715 billion, to which the House Armed Services Committee added $25.5 billion, unsolicited, as did its Senate counterpart. Self-styled congressional budget hawks never complain about our military spending, even though it exceeds that of the next 11 countries combined. So, $23.7 billion annually to renovate an antediluvian water system? That shouldn't be a problem, right?
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