Deanna Miller Berry first learned of the scores of complaints about Denmark, South Carolina’s water supply, during her 2017 mayoral campaign.
For at least a decade, residents of the rural, predominantly Black and lower-income town “knew something was happening” and tried to sound the alarm, said Berry. “A lot of folks [were] complaining that they were starting to get sick, hair loss and skin issues.”
Berry lost that mayoral race, but has continued to fight for access to clean water and sanitation. After teaming up with a group from Flint, Michigan – another predominantly Black and lower-income community with a history of contaminated water – Berry learned that Denmark was allowing HaloSan, a non-EPA-approved pesticide, to be pumped into the city’s water supply. Although Denmark told residents in 2018 they discontinued the use of HaloSan, Berry said the work to ensure residents have access to clean and affordable water isn’t over.
More than 2 million people living in the United States lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation, according to a report from the US Water Alliance, a non-profit organization focused on sustainable water access in the country. Experts say that extreme weather events associated with the climate crisis are likely to exacerbate existing issues with the water infrastructure in the US, and that poor communities are likely to feel the effects of climate change on access to clean water first.
The pandemic has made the issue of lack of access to clean water and sanitation even more glaring and pressing, said Maureen Taylor, a lifelong activist in Detroit, Michigan, who has been fighting against similar price hikes and shutoffs in the city, which she said have greatly affected lower-income residents. “You have to wash your hands,” she said. “How are you going to do that if your water is turned off?”
Women, in particular women of color, have been deeply embedded in the water justice movement even before the movement’s official origins in the early 1990s, when a national coalition of activists and academics came together for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership summit, said Dr Dorceta Taylor, a professor at Yale’s School of the Environment and an expert on the Environmental Justice movement.
“Even though you see many kinds of references to the fathers of environmental justice, there are grandmothers, mothers and women that have been doing it from the very onset in every aspect of it,” said Taylor.
Many of these women have banded together to share strategies, support each other and fight the larger national battle for water justice in ways they couldn’t as individuals, experts say.
“If the toilet or the sewage flows back into the house it’s women dealing with it and trying to protect themselves and their children too,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers,…