Could you go one day without using a toilet? How about a lifetime?
March 22 marks the 10th anniversary of World Water Day. This year’s theme is International Year of Water Cooperation and highlights how water is a shared resource that needs to be managed through cooperation among users. Currently, 780 million people — more than 2.5 times the entire population of the U.S. — lack access to safe water. Roughly 1.2 billion people do not have access to sanitation facilities and 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation.
To call attention to the problem, Matt Damon, co-founder of water.org, released a video declaring that he would go on strike and not use a bathroom until everyone had access to adequate sanitation. While tongue-and-cheek, the announcement does place the reality that billions face in terms everyone can understand. It also highlights development priorities: more people have mobile phones than a toilet.
Not surprisingly, the impacts of not having access to clean water and sanitation fall disproportionately on women and marginalized communities. The continual search for safe water and adequate sanitation requires millions of women and children to spend hours a day just collecting water for domestic use. Every day, more than 152 million hours of women and girls’ time is spending collecting water — time that could be spent working at an income-generating job, caring for family members or attending school. The inability to participate in economic activity ensures continued marginalization for women in communities across the world.
The U.S. is not immune to this crisis. A recent UN report found wide disparities in access to safe drinking water and sanitation that adversely affected people of color and Native Americans. The report found that 13 percent of Native American households don’t have access to safe water and/or wastewater disposal versus only 0.6 percent of non-native households. The report also quoted a study on the racial impact of water pricing and shut-off policies in Boston that found that for every one percent increase in the percentage of people of color in a Boston ward, the number of threatened cutoffs increased by 4%.
Though dire, the situation is not without solutions. Water.org, for instance, approaches development from the standpoint that grassroots organizations in country have far more sophisticated knowledge of the social, political, and economic issues within a community. As a result, instead of “one-size fits” all blanket approach, solutions are tailored to the specific needs of each community, which is far more likely to result in long-term success.
Domestically, there is no reason the richest nation in the world has communities that lack access to even the most basic services, like clean water and sanitation. We have the resources to ensure this does not happen; all we need is the political will. On World Water Day, we should make a pledge to ensure every American has access to clean water and sanitation and join Matt Damon on his strike.