The rainbow color of the pilgrimage of water justice in North America
The 1st reflection of the Seven Weeks for Water 2021 of the WCC Ecumenical Water Network is written by Michele Roberts*, from the Environmental Justice Health Alliance. In this reflection, the author, based on several instances of large scale water contamination in many cities in the USA, comes to a conclusion that lack of access to clean water in the country is a result of systemic racism.
1 Corinthians 12:13
“We were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
What does it mean to have the right to water? What if you had no access to water? What if you had access to water, but it was contaminated? What if you had to travel regularly to purchase water for consumption and/or bathing?
I am the national co-coordinator for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA). EJHAis a national network comprised of grassroots and advocacy environmental justice organizations built on a history of environmental and economic justice. EJHA affiliate groups are primarily organized from the fence line of energy and chemical operations and “legacy sites” (sometimes called “fence-line” or “frontline” communities). Many of these activities require and use tremendous amounts of water.
In my capacity to serve environmental justice communities across this nation, sadly, I have encountered many living out the reality of this condition. As a result, we studied the Safe Drinking Water Policy which guarantees access to clean, drinkable water for all. After a thorough study and investigation, we found a disturbing relationship between sociodemographic characteristics, especially race and drinking water violations increased in: communities of color, low-income communities, areas with various ethnic languages, areas with more crowded housing conditions and areas with more people with sparse transportation. We published a detailed report on our study, titled “Watered Down Justice”.
Think about that, today at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. A time when we are told to be sure to hydrate our bodies and wash our hands as often as we can. Imagine, not having access to water.
Some would say: how is that in America? However, serving communities across this nation leaves me referring to America as the global south in the north, as I see systemic racism being the root cause over and over again. There are many communities in America today, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic who do not have access to water and/adequate sanitation facilities.
Water is life. It nourishes us, cleanses us, sustains us. From bacteria to humans, all life depends water. In America, when many of us seek access to this life-giving resource, we go to a nearby tap, turn it on, and assume that what comes out of the tap will not harm us. We trust that there are systems in place to protect us and our families. Sadly, for far too many people and communities in this nation, this is not the case. Access to clean water has become a source of stress, discomfort, discrimination and oppression.
We all remember Flint, Michigan and the utter failure of government to ensure safe water for all. Just after was, Newark, New Jersey which made headlines for the lead crisis brewing in that city. What’s more deplorable in cities like Sand Branch, Texas – founded by one of the last remaining Freedman’s town (formed by freed people over 100 years ago) – residents find themselves still actively denied access to the water resources of Dallas, a mere 15 miles away. All over the country, communities like Newark, Flint, and Sand Branch and Mossville, Louisiana have cried out for justice and their right to water to be honored, only to have their demands fall on deaf ears.
Today, more than ever, we must be mindful that our policies need to be updated to reflect equity and justice. For example, the Safe Drinking Water Act was enacted into legislation in 1974. However, it is clear that this law has not been enforced in an equitable manner for everyone. The failures of the Flint water crisis exposed the failures of this public health law and more, put a face on the victims of these failures …Black, Brown and Native Peoples. It’s time we embark on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace which looks like the colours of the rainbow, which depicts the true colour of the America we know today and not only that of the privileged few. With that understanding to work on water justice, is a good start for the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace in America.
Questions for Discussion
- What does all of this have to do with Lent? Think about your baptism and baptismal covenant. What if there was no water? What if that water was extremely contaminated?
- What did God call us to do in honoring our baptismal covenant? As for me, the Episcopal Baptismal convent I took many years ago calls for “us to work for justice and peace.”
- How do we ensure we all have the right to clean water? What can we the ‘communion of saints’ do?
- Try to find out about the water policy of your country from the internet and find out if it is being implemented effectively.
- Try to find out if the poor and marginalized communities of your region are getting access to clean water.
- Support a non-governmental organization that works on advocacy for water justice, e.g., by volunteering, by donating if you can.
- The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-04/documents/epa816f04030.pdf
- Flint water crisis: Report says ‘systemic racism’ played role https://edition.cnn.com/2017/02/18/politics/flint-water-report-systemic-racism/index.html
- UN Report on Stigma and right to water https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/731356?ln=en
* Michele Roberts is the national co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform. She is a 3rd generation Episcopalian who was one of nine selected to represent PB Michael Curry at UNCSW63 and says her faith is what drives her commitment to addressing systemic racism.