Environmental Racism: Is the California Drought Really Over? By Faith Estella Florez
Updated: May 15, 2018
We tend to associate the lack of access to resources with nations that are impoverished fiscally and un-advanced technologically. Thus, when we are prompted to answer questions like "What kinds of places don’t have access to clean water?” we respond with Africa, Asia, and Latin America, referring to the news about the lethal cholera epidemic in the Republic of Congo, the arsenic contamination of the Indus River Basin in Pakistan, and the plastic pollution of Taiwan’s rivers and streams. Undrinkable, unusable, unreliable.
But solely associating water contamination and pollution with Africa, Asia, and Latin America is precarious. In doing so, we allow American individuals and communities to slip into an unfaltering state of blissful ignorance. After all, these are problems and issues we don’t experience in the United States. We’ve got an over abundance of resources--land, capital, labor, every good and service conceivable. However, is this assumption correct?
Activity within recent years has indicated otherwise. As evident through the water crises in Flint, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and dozens of other cities across the nation, clean drinking water is becoming increasingly unavailable and inaccessible. Why, then, is this happening in the United States? In order to answer this question, we are going to analyze the water crisis in, specifically, California.
In April of 2012, Jerry Brown signed AB 658 on behalf of the state of California, and declared that water is a human right. Despite this, more than 200 thousand Californians do not have access to it. Perhaps we can attribute this to the drought? Not quite. According to Peter Gleick, Ph.D., President of the Pacific Institute, “It’s not a new problem with the drought, but the drought has worsened the problem” (California Climate and Health).
Worsened, indeed. Californians are desperately sapping gallons of dirty water from the soil beneath their feet. But multiple concerns arise from the utilization of this specific source of water. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Society, approximately one-fifth of California’s groundwater contains dangerous pollutants and contaminants in undiluted concentrations. They include, but are not limited to, uranium, nitrate, arsenic, and manganese. These chemicals are linked to various diseases and illnesses, including cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects, and neurological disorders. This is beyond concerning, considering the fact that most of these chemicals are categorized as lethal substances by numerous state and federal regulatory policies. All of the aforementioned seem to be hitting communities hard, which is unacceptable. So why is nothing being done?
The lack of advocacy and outreach for these communities indicates the involvement of underlying socio-economic and political factors. In the United States, a foundation of inequality has been maintained throughout history. What we are witnessing is not the work of a single individual, organization, foundation, or bureau. It is the accumulation of decades upon decades of discrimination. In this specific circumstance, water has been redefined as a commodity, it’s purpose to be bought and sold. In turn, an entire institutionalized system has evolved around its production, manufacturing, and distribution. From the control, or lack thereof, of this commodity, specific power and wealth is derived. With a basic comprehension of these facts, we can begin to explain why exactly white communities seem to be rewarded and communities of color seem to suffer. This is a system that punishes poverty and rewards wealth, and is characteristically apathetic, cruel, and immoral.
So, is the drought really over?
Perhaps not for communities of color. With incomes that land them far below the federal poverty line, they split their weekly paychecks between purchasing gallons of water and paying the rent for their homes. Granted, temporary relief comes in the form of water trucks sent by graciously charitable organizations. But these solutions provided for them are hardly sustainable, leaving them vulnerable and defenseless, lacking adequate resources to protect themselves and their families. That is the reality they live, day in and day out. The purpose of this article is not to inspire guilt and remorse. I’m not attempting to privilege anyone. But I do think we should, collectively, realize how dangerous the commodification of human rights is, even if it does not affect us personally. Because for some Americans, lack of clean water is a reality.