Communities Need Safe Drinking Water: A Rural Environmental Justice Case Study

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Vision: Community Solutions for Safe Drinking Water

Everyone deserves to have clean drinking water. But for much of our history, rural communities and Native nations — especially historically marginalized communities — have lacked access to this basic foundation of life and health. While unsafe drinking water is an environmental justice and public health issue for both urban and rural places, rural communities face barriers related to scale and remoteness that require specialized solutions, including prioritization and support from non-rural agencies, organizations, and leaders. Across the country, rural communities and Native nations are working to build systems that work for their specific needs.

“It was a community effort, what we did. It took all of us organizing for what the community needed. We had churches organizing buses, and elderly people going up to the county commission meeting every month. It opened up the eyes of a lot of people here. Now they’re talking about air and water quality—landfill, pollution, hog waste. Our success with the water opened up the door for that.”

Edward Gillim, community leader, Sampson County, North Carolina

Voices: Communities Creating Clean Water Systems

Access to safe drinking water is a question of environmental justice because structural racial, economic, and geographic inequities have contributed to the causes of water contamination and hindered efforts to create needed systems for affected communities. Structural discrimination based on place, race, and class has contributed to the location of pollution sources near underinvested communities and communities of color like Ivanhoe, NC, as well as to challenges in accessing funding and other support for solutions. 

The communities and organizations profiled in this case study are all working hard to design, build, and maintain effective rural clean water systems. They are envisioning and building thriving futures of equitable rural prosperity. They generously shared their thoughts, focusing on two key questions: What structural challenges keep rural communities from accessing clean water solutions? and What will it take for rural communities to drive their own clean water solutions?

“In my traditional Indigenous lands, they’re not actually natural disasters, they’re human disasters. Mother Earth, she’s just doing what she needs to do, she’s being insulted and abused. What are we going to do with those water systems [damaged by disasters]—are we going to rebuild them as is? How do we think outside the box on reconstructions? How are we going to construct water systems that are more resilient and can withstand more? How are we going to protect our source of water for all living beings (which include all animals & plants)? How are we going to lessen depletion of water and all its needs to provide to us?”

Jacqueline Shirley, RCAC

Place Matters

“Why don’t they just move?” This all-too-common urban response to rural challenges — even from well-intentioned leaders with a stated focus on equity — is to question whether struggling rural communities should exist at all. There is a common and persistent sentiment that people should simply leave these places rather than receive investment and support. As shocking as this response may be, given its prevalence, it is essential to address it directly. 

First, people are not pieces on a game board — they have deep relationships with family, friends, community, and land that sustain them as key parts of their history and identity. Rural place-based networks are essential to the health of rural people and communities, and they support people when formal systems fail them — and formal systems are failing rural people, especially in historically marginalized communities. 

Second, for communities of color and Native communities, the land they occupy is a vital part of their history, resilience, and perseverance. These communities were often forced to their current locations because the land was less desirable, and they should not be asked to abandon these places without the investment and opportunity they have historically been denied.

Finally, rural and urban communities are also deeply interdependent — rural communities provide food, energy, manufacturing, and other resources that the country depends on, though this relationship has historically been inequitable and extractive. At the most basic level, rural communities are valuable in and of themselves and deserve to achieve equitable prosperity and thrive on their own terms.

“Rural economic justice is so different from what everybody understands — we have to do so much education. My fear is by the time people I work with get to explain what it’s like, the funds will have evaporated and folks who really need it won’t get it. I feel like we’ve missed some grants because the funders didn’t quite get the difference between rural and urban projects.”

Sherri White-Williamson, EJCAN

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Aspen CSG’s consultant Rebecca Huenink led the writing process for our What’s Working in Rural series. We are grateful for her contributions.

Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group