America’s Clean Water Crisis Goes Far Beyond Flint. There’s No Relief in Sight
The wheels are still attached to the house trailer that Pamela Rush calls home, but the 49-year-old mother of two is trapped. A lifelong resident of Lowndes County, Alabama, she lives off disability checks, struggling to pay the bills on a ninth-grade education. It’s hard to attribute her situation to any one cause—she was born in one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states and, like the rest of the county’s mostly African-American population, she wrestles with the legacy of slavery and systemized discrimination. Just down the road from her home are the sharecroppers’ quarters where she was born.
Yet the most immediate source of Rush’s troubles is immediate: the puddle of sewage that has collected in her backyard, brewing with human feces. Whenever the toilet inside is flushed, the waste travels through a 10-ft. pipe straight to her backyard. Thousands of the county’s residents are in the same situation. Local government won’t pay to build infrastructure to connect them to proper wastewater-disposal lines, so they’re left to deal with the myriad problems caused by living in sewage that bubbles up into showers and bathtubs. A 2017 study of county residents found that 34% of participants suffer from hookworm, a parasitic infection contracted by walking barefoot on soil contaminated by fecal matter; among the issues associated with the disease is slow development in children. Charlie Mae Holcombe, 71, who lives in the area, said that the lack of sanitation accounts for the allergies, asthma and heart problems pervasive in the county. “Everyone’s dying,” she tells photographer Matt Black. Hers is one of dozens of stories Black gathered as he documented America’s water crisis for over a year.
For most Americans, water does not get a second thought. It flows at the turn of a knob, at a cost that is all but negligible. This is as it should be. Being essential to life, clean water is a right under international law and U.N. declarations. Yet in the U.S., it’s far from guaranteed. More than 30 million Americans lived in areas where water systems violated safety rules at the beginning of last year, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Others simply cannot afford to keep water flowing. As with basically all environmental and climate issues, poor people and minority communities are hit hardest.