Reliable access to clean water and sanitation may seem like a given in the U.S., but for many communities of color -- already disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 -- a lack of access is yet another example of inequity in this country.


A well-known problem in developing countries (e.g. Peru’s surge in contagion correlates with a third of the population lacking easy access to safe water), the United States, too, has a water and sanitation shortfall. And a seminal 2019 report on the gap found race to be the strongest predictor of lack of taps and toilets.

For example, the Texas colonias, home to 500,000, largely Latinx residents along the Mexico border, lacks access to running water and sewer systems. So does 40% of the Navajo Nation, straddling Southwest states. Lowndes County, Alabama, which is 74% African American, lacks sanitary waste disposal. Three quarters of its residents have reported raw sewage washing into their homes from faulty septic or waste pipes, a condition that’s seen the resurgence of hookworm. As of late 2019, according to the report by the U.S. Water Alliance (USWA) and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) nonprofit DigDeep, at least 2 million Americans lacked access to running water and a working toilet.

Water quality, too, is at issue, due to chemical seepage. Recent California data shows 700,000 people exposed to contaminated water in the Central Valley, and 1 million more in San Joaquin Valley, whose residents are mainly low-income Latinx. More than 44 million Americans draw on water with recent, Safe Drinking Water Act violations. In other communities, wells and waterways are drying up.

These are just some of the gaps detailed by the University of North Carolina in their overview of clean water access challenges in the U.S., and addressed in the USWA/Dig Deep report. And clean water shortfalls lead to knock-on issues. “Water connects you to health and economic development,” said USWA senior program manager Zoe Roller, who researched the USWA/Dig Deep report. “Having better quality water infrastructure would enable other improvements for these communities, like attracting businesses.”

The answers to water and sanitation problems aren’t simple. They demand changes to systems that involve public and private providers, as well as state, community and home infrastructure. Donors who care about equity, may wonder how they can right water access wreckage. In fact, there are at least three areas where private donations of cash and time can influence U.S. water systems.

Empowering communities: To provide immediate help, donors can fund community-based organizations (CBOs) that provide emergency access to drinking water and connect the needs of underserved residents to local and state water utilities, advocacy, and government grants and loans.  “The first thing to know about this problem is that it affects people in all 50 states,” said George McGraw, founder and CEO of DigDeep. “There is probably someone just a few counties away from you who is suffering.” offers an interactive map of CBOs and a “How Can I Help” page for donations that are distributed to CBOs, according to Roller. One, the Community Water Center (CWC) in California’s Central Valley, helps communities to access grants and to elect people with water challenges to sit on local water boards. Said Roller: “[CWC]…advocated for a big bill that passed in California, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which creates funding for drinking water systems for disadvantaged communities.” Another CBO, Adult & Youth United Development Association (AYUDA) in the Texas colonias advocates for residents’ clean water, health and housing, and provides grants to improve household plumbing and sewage disposal.

Improving technology: To expand water access options, donors can fund incubators like ImagineH2O, which create affordable technologies for populations where distance from sewage and water hook up calls for self-contained systems. “Water tech is 15 years behind solar tech or energy tech,” said McGraw.  “We’ve seen [the latter] technologies become very accessible and reliable. Decentralized water and sanitation should become that available – a world where sewage biodigesters can serve an apartment block, and atmospheric water generators can pull clean drinking water from the air.” Technical assistance nonprofits need support too, like the National Rural Water Association and Rural Community Assistance Partnership, which ride circuit around smaller, rural communities and coach them on upkeep of systems.

Fixing policy: Third, organizations that conduct research to influence national water policy, like USWA and DigDeep, need funding to make the case for increasing federal resources to address inequities. This includes plugging known holes in service and restoring water and sanitation questions to the national census to identify remaining gaps, some dating to the 1930s, when communities of color were left out of the country’s original water and sanitation grids. “Structural racism left out Black, Brown and Indigenous communities … Some of it was red-lining, some Jim Crow, some not serving tribal nations,” said McGraw, who shifted DigDeep’s focus from developing WASH systems in Africa to needs in the U.S. after a donor pled for help for the Navajo Nation.

Increasing support in these three areas is a step toward solving the U.S. water problem in the next 30 years, according to McGraw, and will contribute to developing the WASH sector in the U.S. along the lines of stakeholder collaboration in the Global South. There, UN agencies, large-scale funders, continent-spanning WASH nonprofits and government water agencies meet regularly, share knowledge and build comprehensive programs. To address global WASH needs of close to 800 million people, individual donors have made transformative grants in the tens of millions. “With $100 million we could begin transforming water access for the Navajo,” said McGraw. “If a third of the people in Peru don’t have access to water, and a third of Navajo don’t, why aren’t we helping both?”