Millions of Americans Face Water Shutoffs During Pandemic
The Centers for Disease Control has emphasized that washing hands with soap and water is one of the most effective measures we can take in preventing the spread of COVID-19. However, millions of Americans in some of the most vulnerable communities face the prospect of having their water shut off during the lockdowns, according to The Guardian.
Nearly 40 percent of Americans live in areas that rely on water utilities, which have not stopped the policy of shutoffs for non-payment, according to data from and Water Watch (FWW) and The Guardian.
"This is an emergency and the priority is to stop the spread so this is a no brainer, everyone must have access to water … this should not be a partisan issue," said congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, who is pushing federal intervention, as The Guardian reported.
Millions of Americans have been laid off or furloughed during massive social distancing measures, stretching monthly budgets and forcing families to make tradeoffs about which household expenses to pay for.
"As unemployment reaches record highs, millions of Americans are going to have to choose between paying for food, rent and bills … water is not something people should have to tradeoff," said Mary Grant, director of water at FWW to The Guardian.
Water shutoffs have affected Detroit for years. Detroit started the policy in 2014 and has recorded about 127,500 total service cutoffs for households behind on payments, according to the water department, as the AP reported. Michigan has the sixth highest total of diagnosed COVID-19 cases in the country.
"In this pandemic, it's the people who are living on the margins of society and the poorest of our society that's being the most adversely impacted," said Rev. Roslyn Bouier, who runs Detroit's Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry, to the AP.
"Access to clean water is a basic human right at all times, but any action that restricts families' access to water during the current coronavirus outbreak would be reckless in the extreme," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone, D-NJ, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, D-OR, said in a statement to the utility companies, as Food Safety News reported.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that requires the re-connection of shut off water service. She also started a $2 million grant program to help communities comply with the order, according to WXYZ in Detroit.
"This is a critical step both for the health of families living without a reliable water source, and for slowing the spread of the Coronavirus," Whitmer said in a release, as WXYZ reported. "We continue to work to provide all Michiganders – regardless of their geography or income level – the tools they need to keep themselves and their communities protected."
The highest rates of water shutoffs are in southern and rural states, with the large concentrations in Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida and Oklahoma. In New Orleans, which has the fourth highest rate of infections per capita, only 300 homes have been reconnected and the city does not seem to know how many more people are without water, according to The Guardian.
"It's a package of related factors – institutional racism, environmental injustice, and poverty – which means communities most vulnerable to Covid-19 are the same communities most vulnerable to water shutoffs," said Grant to The Guardian.
House Democrats proposed a bill that included a $1.5 billion allocation to help cover water bills for low-income families and also would ban utility shutoffs during the pandemic, according to the AP. Additionally, The Guardian reported that last week, Nancy Pelosi signaled plans to propose $85 billion earmarked for water projects in a forthcoming infrastructure bill to stimulate economic recovery.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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