The People’s Movement for Safe, Affordable Water and Sanitation in the United States
Across the United States, nearly 2.2 million people lack safe or affordable water in their homes. Another 1.7 million lack proper sanitation systems. Whose Water?: The People’s Movement for Safe, Affordable Water and Sanitation in the United States travels to five drastically different regions of the country that are facing the impacts of this troubling trend–Lowndes County, Alabama; Flint, Detroit, and Highland Park, Michigan; Philadelphia; Navajo Nation; Martin County, Kentucky and Des Moines, Iowa. Through the stories of communities fighting for safe, affordable water and sanitation, the film examines the industrial and governmental systems that prevent so many people from accessing this basic necessity of life and offers concrete solutions to address this unprecedented human rights crisis.
Surrounded by 20% of the world’s fresh water, communities across Michigan are facing astronomical water bills, compounded by unprecedented storms and aging infrastructure. It’s primarily low income, majority black communities facing the brunt of these issues, and who are at the forefront of the fight for safe, affordable water.
In the1864 Treaty with the US government, the Diné people were stripped of their ability to control minerals on their land. Since then, industrial and governmental coal and uranium mining operations have drained their water aquifer and contaminated indiviual wells. While 30% of Navajo Nation residents lack access to potable water, Navajo leaders, scientists and activists are working to hold the federal government accountable.
Lowndes County, Alabama
Inadequate governmental investment in rural infrastructure has left many residents of Lowndes County, Alabama, which is 70% black, with overpriced, malfunctioning septic systems, compounded by predatory home lending. These conditions have led to a major hookworm outbreak in the county. But after years of organizing, community members have overcome tremendous barriers to take their fight for rural wastewater infrastructure to US Congress.
Martin County, Kentucky
Martin County, Kentucky was once the center of the US coal industry, reaping billions of dollars in profits for mining companies, and causing billions more in damage to Appalaichan communities. As coal mining rendered most individual wells unusable, poorly constructed infrastructure was built, but funding to maintain this infrastructure never materialized. Compounding this issue is water contamination, as elected officials, heavily influenced by coal mining companies have looked the other way. As prices for contaminated water in Appalachia has increased exponentially, an unlikely coalition of former coal miners, environmental activists and lawyers are working to hold elected officials accountable and regain control of their water system.
Des Moines, Iowa
Iowa is the largest corn and soybean producer in the United States, a commodity that has become increasingly precious as an alternative to fossil fuels. In order to maximize production, industrial agricultural operations drain water from their fields, polluting rivers and streams with nitrates, costing water utilities millions of dollars to treat drinking water. The farm and soybean industry are not required to clean up their farm runoff under the Clean Water Act, thus the Des Moines water department filed an unprecedented lawsuit in an attempt to force regulation over these enormous farming operations.
As water bills become more unaffordable for Philadelphians, specifically African Americans, arrears, which are added to property taxes began to pile up, resulting in the loss of many Black-owned family homes. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia began to advocate for a water affordability plan and arrearage forgiveness program, tying water bills to a percentage of a household’s income.
Catarina de Alburquerque
Gavonne and Sandra Dixon
George and Patti Naylor
Micky and Nina
Pamela and Almedia Rush
Kate is Detroit and NYC-based filmmaker. She received her Master in Fine Arts from International Center of Photography-Bard College in 2013. She has produced short and feature length films, storytelling platforms, installations about water, education, immigration rights, police violence and environmental racism in collaboration with legal advocacy organizations, scholars, community organizers, investigative journalists, universities, and high school students. In 2015, she worked with the ACLU of Michigan to bring national attention the Flint Water Crisis. She is a 2018 MacDowell Fellow.
Maureen has served as State Chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization since 1993, and was elected Treasurer of the National Welfare Rights Union in 1994. Since 2002, Michigan Welfare Rights has worked with thousands of concerned residents and organizations to stop water, gas, and electricity shut-offs. She has testified before Detroit City Council, in the Michigan State capitol, and before members of Congress and federal administrations on the plight of poor people, especially as safety net programs are removed without education or employment opportunities for low income families.
Maureen is dedicated community activist who represents public assistance recipients at Michigan Department of Health and Human Service (MDHHS) offices over case disputes. Along with other welfare rights members, she conducts local and state DHS policy trainings and works with elected officials and program administrators to draft policies and procedures that protect poor and low-income families.Maureen earned her Bachelor of Social Work at Marygrove College in 1983, where she was also the distinguished Valedictorian of her graduating class. In 1994, she earned her Master of Social Work degree from Wayne State University. She has received many distinguished awards for her community organizing and leadership, and speaks at conferences and college campuses across the U.S. on poverty and safety net needs; changes in labor and the economy; civil rights history; and utility shutoffs and organizing. Maureen is a mother, educator and a member of local several boards and national community organizations.
Sylvia is a resident of Detroit where she is involved in frontline community groups, including the People’s Water Board Coalition, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Water Is Life Alliance. In 2020, she was appointed to the first Michigan Advisory Council for Environmental Justice, which was created to ensure perspectives from impacted communities are included in state decision making; and to the EPA’s Great Lakes Advisory Board. Sylvia also serves as a Region 5 member of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council where she serves as the current Chair.