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Water and Sanitation

How Expanding Water Access Could Boost the U.S. Economy by $200 Billion

clean-environmental justice-crisis
clean-environmental justice-crisis

More than 2.2 million Americans live without running water or a flushing toilet at home, costing the U.S. economy $8.58 billion each year.

George McGraw

Founder & CEO, DigDeep

The United States has a hidden water crisis: More than 2.2 million Americans live without running water or a flush toilet at home. These are not individuals living off the grid; these are entire communities of people, sometimes located just miles from other towns with full services.

Without working toilets, households in Appalachia are forced to flush sewage into nearby streams — sometimes an important source of drinking water for their community — causing outbreaks of illness. Families on the Navajo Nation drive miles to haul drinking water, which they ration for weeks at a time, while people in Texas border colonias often spend more than a third of their monthly income on trucked water deliveries which may not even be potable.

This crisis exists in every state, and recent Census data shows the number of people impacted is actually growing, fueled by climate change and disinvestment. Right now, race is the strongest predictor of which Americans reside without a tap or toilet at home. Native American households are 19 times more likely to lack running water than white households; Black and Latino households are twice as likely.

A crisis in plain sight

Life in the “water access gap” is more complicated — and a lot more expensive. Adults and children spend hours each week hauling water from streams, wells, or grocery stores — hours taken away from work, studying, or playing. They live with a higher risk of waterborne disease, diabetes, physical injury, and acute mental stress, and must also shoulder the healthcare bills that follow.

New research this year out of the nonprofit that I lead, DigDeep, calculated the price tag of these consequences: a whopping $15,800 per impacted household in healthcare costs, lost wages, and bottled water purchases. For many, that’s more than their annual income.

Without access to water, families live on the edge of an economic cliff. One of our clients, Brenda, lives in a remote New Mexico community far from a municipal water line. Several years ago, Brenda’s husband injured his foot at work, and, without running water at home to clean the wound, it became dangerously infected. He was taken to the nearest hospital 50 miles away, where he was treated and discharged.

Without running water, Brenda couldn’t make the tamales that she sells in town to support her family. No tamales meant no gas money, and no gas money meant she couldn’t bring her husband home. After being discharged from the hospital, her husband was sleeping on the streets while Brenda waited for a neighbor to deliver water. His lost pay during this time threatened their family with financial ruin.

How the crisis affects us all

The economic consequences of life without water don’t just touch impacted families – overall, the water gap strips $8.58 billion from the US economy each year.

Fortunately, our research also shows that every dollar invested in bringing running water and proper sanitation to these American households generates $4.65 – that’s a return on investment of nearly 5 to 1. That means closing America’s water access gap could unlock nearly $200 billion of economic value over the next 50 years.

As sky-high inflation squeezes household budgets and fears of recession loom, the efforts of organizations in America’s WaSH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) sector, combined with targeted financial investments by the federal government, could be a pathway to prosperity. Bringing running water and proper sanitation to these marginalized households would not only improve the quality of life for millions, but it would also strengthen the entire US economy.

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