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Who gets to thrive and who suffers from water insecurity in the Global North?

Who gets to thrive and who suffers from water insecurity in the Global North?

Exposing the myths of household water insecurity in the Global North: A critical review
Tuesday, October 13, 2020



The primary actions to halt the transmission of the coronavirus from the first public health announcements, was and still are that people should wash their hands regularly, socially distance and wear face masks in public areas.  In the U.S. and Canada most of us would have thought that access to water was a given, that there would be no barrier for people living in the most developed countries in the world to simply wash their hands.  However, it soon became clear following reports from Detroit, Michigan (Detroit water shutoffs/unpaid-bills/coronavirus N.Lakhani) in March 2020 that this human right did not apply to the whole population.  Detroit is the 24th largest city in the U.S. out of over 300 cities.  Thousands of water shutoffs in recent years have put the lives of a significant number of the population in jeopardy during the pandemic.

PLuS Alliance Fellows Dr Katie Meehan at King’s College London and Professor Amber Wutich at Arizona State University et al have been investigating water insecurity independently for many years, and met two years ago through the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) research network. Their collaboration was a natural fit. In their current publication, led by Dr Meehan, the article draws on a relational perspective to argue that “household water insecurity is a product of institutionalized structures and power, manifested unevenly through space and time, and is reproduced in places we tend to assume are the most water-secure in the world.” Dr Meehan and the research team in the article Exposing the myths of household water insecurity in the Global North: A critical review analyse the concept of “modern water”, which has been postulated on the basis of an ideal modern infrastructure and a highly influential set of ideas that have shaped household water provision and infrastructure development over the past two centuries. 

The narrative that has prevailed in high-income countries is,

  • Water access is universal
  • Water is clean
  • Water is affordable
  • Water delivery is trustworthy
  • Water is universally governed
  • Modern water is the best water

“Our group had been working for a long time on water insecurity in low- and middle-income countries. Our community partners in the U.S., Canada, and other higher income countries have been doing incredible work toward raising awareness and seeking solutions for people experiencing water insecurity in high income economies. Their work inspired us to work on exposing the myths of household water insecurity in the Global North” said Professor Wutich.

Racialized policies cannot be divorced from this analysis. “People of colour experience poverty on disproportionate levels.   The punitive measures if you don’t pay your water bill on time have a disproportionate effect on communities of colour” said Dr Meehan.

Impact on state-wide initiatives

This myth busting research was recently presented by Professor Wutich to the City of Phoenix Citizens’ Water Rate Advisory Committee, which is now chaired by PLuS Alliance Fellow Professor Dave White from Arizona State University. Subsequently, the committee issued an important Water Equity Plan. Phoenix is the 5th largest city in the U.S. with a population of 1.66 million. Strong links have been forged with the National Science Foundation’s Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) Network in the U.S. and a presentation has also been made to the American Water Resources Association to discuss how the social infrastructure can be leverage to address water insecurity in the U.S. and other high-income economies. “I am really proud that we have built relationships that enable us to present our cutting-edge research to inform policymaking as water managers confront future water challenges.” said Professor Wutich.

What have been the benefits of being part of the PLuS Alliance?

“The PLuS Alliance gave us the impetus to work together, to look at the stigmatization of water sources in the Phoenix area. It gave us an opportunity to collaborate, to experience mutual learning and to extend networks to the other co-authors of this article” commented Dr Meehan. From ASU’s perspective Professor Wutich said “The PLuS Alliance has been crucial to facilitating our ASU research partnership with water scholars at KCL, and especially Dr Meehan. It has enabled us to hold international workshops, work together with postdocs and students, secure funding and publish research collaboratively, and sustain a long-term collaboration.  It has been so enriching for our students, postdocs, and faculty to have a chance to think and write with Dr Meehan, and it has really inspired us to move our research and teaching in new directions.”

With an additional year of funding from the PLuS Alliance Dr Meehan plans to extend the research to examine insecure water access in Europe, starting with a project on people experiencing homelessness and water/toilet insecurity in London, which is currently funded by a small grant from King’s Social Sciences and Public Policy Faculty Research Fund. Eventually, she hopes to extend the work to other nations in Europe.

Read the full articleExposing the myths of household water insecurity in the Global North: A critical review

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Bisi Olulode, Communications Officer