With more than 2 million Americans lacking access to running water or basic plumbing, the U.S. water crisis has reached a critical juncture. It’s a multifaceted challenge that encompasses issues such as water scarcity, pollution, structural racism, inadequate infrastructure, and climate change impacts. Chris Freimund recently joined Water For People as the U.S. WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) Program Manager, the first role of its kind at Water For People. Here, we talk with Chris about what’s driving the U.S. water crisis, its connection to the global one, and how Water For People plans to be involved in U.S. work.
Why do such a significant number of Americans lack access to water and sanitation?
It’s important to understand the reasons behind the lack of access so we can close that gap and improve the situation. The fact that millions of people in the U.S. don’t have access to water or wastewater and sanitation services in their homes is really unacceptable.
If you look at the systems in place and how things have historically been done here in the U.S., the number one indicator of whether someone will experience a lack of access to water or sanitation is race, especially when looking at areas where people have never had access. Systemic racism is the first and biggest reason because the systems in place have historically benefited some populations over the well-being of others.
What are some specific numbers behind these situations?
African American and Latino households are nearly twice as likely to lack access to indoor plumbing and wastewater services than white households. Native American households are 19 times more likely to lack access to water and sanitation services than white households in the U.S.
That’s a major and totally crazy and scary statistic. Other predictors are a lack of access to resources. People with higher incomes and higher educational attainment are less likely to lack access.
Several media outlets have covered issues with the Colorado River basin over the last few months, a system that 40 million people rely on across several states. Sharing water sources is a significant issue both here in the U.S. and other countries. How do you begin to think about challenges like this?
When we talk about managing shared water, whether at a local scale, a watershed, or multiple states, it’s incredibly complex—so many people with various needs across various industries.
And it only gets more difficult when you think about the pressures of climate change, whether that’s drought or flooding, or population growth which increases demand, or water quality issues and aging infrastructure, right?
If you think about all those things and then plop that complexity into a transboundary or a binational situation, suddenly you’re putting that into the broader relationship of multiple countries that goes beyond just water. But what it really means is opportunity. Yes, there’s more opportunity for conflict, but there’s also more opportunity for collaboration—and that’s what’s really important to think about.
The U.S.-Mexico border, where I studied in my master’s work, has a lot of shared water. There’s the Colorado River, the Rio Grande, and many aquifers, but all that water management is also within this broader political relationship between the two countries and asymmetrical power structures.
Governing structures are different, and there’s the militarization of the border—both things that come into play when you’re also talking about the shared river. It gets complicated. Whatever happens on one side affects the other.
What that really means is you need to create systems where there’s very clear and transparent information, where legal structures for these countries and how they manage things are agreed upon by everyone. And of course, this is even more important in times of scarcity, like facing drought or climate impacts.
All of this makes it even more imperative that, as a country, we figure out how to sustainably manage our water resources for the long term so that everyone, including our neighboring countries, has equitable access to healthy water and sanitation services. And it’s imperative to make sure both that and the systems that we create are resilient, to the best of our ability, to the impacts of climate change.
There’s this critical need for us to invest in infrastructure, invest in collaborative efforts, invest in communities that have historically lacked access, and also invest in communities that are now backsliding and, over time, are losing access because of issues like drought or aging infrastructure.
What about the financial costs of all these types of investments?
With all the above in mind, if that isn’t enough to convince people that we need new policies, there’s a strong economic argument for closing the access gap. If you think about this in an economic way, which a lot of our policymakers do, every year that we allow the water access gap to stay open, the U.S. economy loses over $8 billion.
And then, for every dollar invested in bringing water or sanitation to a family, the economy gains almost $5.00. So, it’s a one-to-five ratio, which is amazing. If all those other things don’t convince people that this is an important change and that we should push new policies to improve the situation and invest here in the U.S. in these systems, hopefully the economic angle will.
Why do you think this role at Water For People is so important right now?
Water For People has a wealth of experience working to close the water access gap globally in multiple countries by improving systems. And we have a long history of collaboration, working with communities and governments to provide technical assistance and capacity support.
I think the big key to our success in this sphere will be through partnerships and coalition-building, facilitating knowledge exchanges with those who are working in this area in different parts of the country, supporting and coordinating collaborative efforts, and really using our voice and platform to advocate for equitable access.
Our goal is to have a collective voice pushing toward new policies to fill research and data gaps because there’s a lot of information that we don’t know. It’s different in each state and in each location, right?
The Vessel Collective is just launching, and we’re very excited to partner with these wonderful organizations. It will bring together NGOs, CBOs, researchers, and others working to improve access to water and sanitation in the U.S. in a way that mirrors water and sanitation NGO networks in other countries where Water For People works, but hasn’t existed in the U.S. before. It will be one way that we begin to speak with collective action in the U.S.
Any final thoughts to share?
It’s critically important that we invest in all of these different things, whether that’s water quantity, water quality, or climate resilience. And, of course, what we care about here at Water For People is access to safe, reliable, affordable, and lasting water for communities. And that’s true regardless of whether it’s domestic or transboundary. Because whatever happens here will affect our neighbors, and whatever happens with our neighbors will affect us.