Never has a year felt more momentous than 2020. But while our lives turned upside down in a global pandemic, water issues continued to make headlines. In fact, access to clean water became even more important when hand washing became a primary action to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And despite the fact that most of us have been at home for most of this year, climate change and its effect on water have not slowed.
Top headlines for water this year include issues from crumbling water infrastructure in the U.S. to frontline water utility workers and the impact of water on racial inequality. Being at home this year has highlighted our dependence on the delivery of essential services like water, electricity, and internet access, but it has also highlighted the deep divide between those with ready access and those without. Resilience to help us withstand the impacts of climate change depends on our ability to narrow that divide and address critical needs, and water plays a central role in that.
By highlighting both the deficiencies and the successes — all of which have an impact on access to clean water, for better or worse — the challenges summed up in these articles can hopefully set us up for greater success in 2021.
Priorities were elsewhere, but while we weren’t looking, our water infrastructure continued to be tested by increasing pressure from climate change and population growth. Building resilience into the stimulus and recovery from COVID-19 could help catapult improvements in the sector. Floods and hurricanes tested our infrastructure this year, and the coming years will be no different — in fact, we can assume they will be even more intense.
Tina Casey looked at some of the emerging technologies that have helped the transition to a clean energy economy. Taking a page from the innovation playbook shows how the water sector could transition to become more sustainable in the long run, both in developing new technologies and training a new workforce.
Just as the energy sector can serve as an example for transitioning toward a more resilient future, making the water sector more energy efficient not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions and utility and plant operating costs, but it can also help us save water. Connecting these two sectors is central to improved sustainability in both the energy and water sectors and can create market opportunities for more effective investments.
While frontline healthcare and food industry have rightly received much attention during the pandemic, we often forget about the electricity and water utility workers who have kept us all safe and connected while we stay at home. Utilities activated emergency protocols from the beginning, and water utilities, in particular due to many across the country have both small budgets and workforces, have faced challenges of keeping their workers healthy and safe.
Let’s not forget the social issues that are aligned with water scarcity and the lack of safe access to clean water. Racial injustice was brought front and center during the pandemic, and climate injustice is central to the problem. COVID-19, layered on top of extant environmental degradations in communities of color and low-income communities, such as the lack of access to clean water, have made this challenge more pressing than ever.
The pandemic has laid bare inequalities when it comes to water, but it has also highlighted the key places that need our investment going forward. Infrastructure, worker protection and training, climate change, and racial inequality—water runs through them all.