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A Month Later, U.S. Is Failing With Its Food and Water Crisis in Puerto Rico

Insights + Opinion
FEMA

Update, 10/20/17: Since this piece was posted, we became aware of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority's (PRASA) boil water notice for all people who have access to running water. So, while roughly 70 percent of the island has access to tap water, it appears it is not safe to drink untreated. However, FEMA appears to be reporting this figure as potable water. We've translated the boil water notice on PRASA's site as of Oct. 20 as the following: "After service is restored—To ensure that the water is drinkable: boil it for five minutes without covering [and] add chlorine bleach (without fragrance or other detergent), using the appropriate amount for the amount of water you will use. READ THE LABEL before using to guarantee that it contains only bleach. Read the percent of bleach and add the recommend amount to the water according to the table on the left. Mix well with water and leave for 20 minutes. You should be able to smell a faint odor of bleach. If that is not the case, add more bleach and leave for another 15 minutes. You can also use bleach in pill form sold in pharmacies. Follow the instructions on the label."

It's been a month since supercharged Hurricane Maria delivered a devastating blow to Puerto Rico, and people are still suffering without food, water and electricity. This is America in 2017, and there is only more climate chaos ahead thanks to the tight fist that fossil fuel interests have on climate policy. What will the response be to this new normal—deadly hurricanes, horrific and deadly wildfires, and their equally deadly aftermath? The past few weeks of climate disasters during this historically vicious season have shown that we need to move swiftly off of greenhouse gas-spewing fossil fuels. They have also shown that if we don't prioritize an equitable and just response to these unnatural disasters, more Americans will continue to face climate-fueled humanitarian crises.


And the Americans that will be most adversely affected are the vulnerable—children; elders; pregnant women; and low-income communities and communities of color. Puerto Rico is one of the starkest environmental justice stories of our time, and a reminder that our response to disasters must protect everyone going forward. This is our first test of humanitarian response within our borders to mass numbers of people lacking food and water, and in Puerto Rico, where 3.4 million Americans live, the Trump administration has failed miserably.

Water is life and Puerto Ricans are on the brink of disaster. Their water system relies on electricity to run the equipment to treat and distribute water, but only 22 percent of the island has power, which is hampering the effort to get the water and sewer systems back up and running. According to FEMA, only 56 percent of wastewater facilities are running (on generator power). Currently, 72 percent of homes have water coming out of the taps—after it inexplicably dropped from 72 to 65 percent earlier this week—but in the northern service area, less than half of homes have running water. The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority currently has a boil water notice in effect for those with service.

The situation is so dire that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to issue a warning for desperate people not to consume water from wells at contaminated toxic waste sites. Many are relying on stream water and at risk of contracting diseases like leptospirosis—and residents are already dying from drinking tainted water.

Puerto Rico's food system was already too dependent on imports with big box stores selling fruits and vegetables that could easily have been grown on the island. But the hurricane has set the island back even more, obliterating about 80 percent of Puerto Rico's crop value. Now, many are wholly reliant upon processed food. But according to official figures, only 87 percent of grocery stores are open, and those that are open aren't fully stocked. According to an official with the Puerto Rican Chamber of Marketing, Industry and Distribution of Food, the food supply chain disruption will take time to address.

Where is the outrage? This is not the time to abandon Puerto Rico, as Donald Trump threatened to do last week. Congress must fully fund Puerto Rico's humanitarian aid and reconstruction, and consider debt forgiveness. We must finally begin to put people before profit in response to this crisis, and rebuild Puerto Rico's food, water and energy systems in a sustainable way to better withstand future disasters.

No time must be lost by the federal government in providing emergency sources of clean drinking water until 100 percent of the island has potable water from their taps. Rather than hiding behind secrecy, the U.S. government must report all deaths from tainted drinking water. Officials can't tackle what they don't count. It must also provide more information about unsafe drinking water. Maps of things like sewage spills and contaminated sites must be provided to communities. We must also ensure that the federal government provides direct funding for Puerto Rico's water system and not privatize it. Before the hurricane, the EPA had cut off Puerto Rico from vital federal loans to maintain its water system due to its debt to investors. A just reconstruction will further the human right to water, not Wall Street profits.

Puerto Rico must be given the tools and resources to build a local, sustainable agriculture system that offers the region a wide and varied diet. Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico imported some 80 percent of its food. But there is an opportunity to rebuild using agroecological practices to ensure food sovereignty on the island, which will also help it become more resilient in the face of future disasters.

We must also help Puerto Rico rebuild its electricity system so that it takes advantage of its abundant renewable resources, and no longer relies on imported oil. This is the future, and this is the only way we will build resilience into our energy system and avert the worst climate chaos ahead by moving off of fossil fuels. Legislation recently introduced by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, requires that 80 percent of our electricity be powered by renewable energy in the next 10 years, and 100 percent by 2035, which would help us accomplish this goal of a just and swift transition nationwide.

We have a moral obligation as a nation to protect all of our people in disasters, and in Puerto Rico, we're failing. But it's not too late to change course. We the people must stand up and demand an equitable and just humanitarian response, and the federal funding to help Puerto Rico rebuild sustainably.

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