When Water Poverty Hits Home

On Tuesdays and Thursday YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

Imagine for a moment, turning on your kitchen tap and nothing comes out. When you visit the bathroom, the same thing. You even try your garden hose before realizing that your neighbors don't have water either. Twelve hours later, the water still hasn’t come on. Three months later, no change.

There’s no utility company to call, no National Guard storming in… just the pervasive feeling of powerlessness and disbelief. You thought that spending hours a day collecting water was something only rural Africans worried about. (Didn’t you send money to build a well in Sudan once?) Suddenly, water poverty hits much closer to home. 

There was a time – not too long ago – that the folks in Tulare County, CA, would have dismissed this little thought experiment as a distant nightmare. But today, over 1000 of Tulare’s 7300 residents rely on charitable water deliveries or costly bottled water for every drop they use to drink, cook, clean and bathe.

Groundwater has fallen by more than 60 feet in most places, and as the drought continues to intensify, thousands more wells will run dry. Tulare is just four hours from San Francisco – and its recent descent into water poverty seems like the canary in the coal mine.

(Tulare’s plight was recently chronicled by Diana Marcum’s hauntingly beautiful photo essay in the LA Times.)

But Tulare’s rapid descent into water poverty hasn’t made much of an impression on other Californians – let alone Americans at large. In fact, just a few hundred miles away it’s hard to know that there’s a drought at all.

While residents of Tulare County spend $10 a day scraping together three gallons of clean water, San Franciscans use over a hundred gallons per person at home. They fill their pools and wash their cars and spend their free time watching Colbert. They’ve been asked to water their lawn only twice a week. Not everyone complies.


U.S. water poverty is nothing new. Undocumented migrants, the urban homeless, 13% of Native Americans… all of these communities have suffered for decades without regular access to water and sanitation. Perhaps Tulare is a much-needed reminder that there’s work to be done. 

But this Drought – and the water poverty that comes with it – present a new and unique challenge. For the first time, families in places like rural California (and in a different way, Detroit) are losing the water access they once enjoyed. While these men and women begin a new life in water poverty, the rest of the country continues to consume more water per capita than any other developed nation.

We’re witnessing the birth of a “basic necessities gap” – an inequality potentially more sinister and unpredictable than disparities in income.  And while we hope that the drought will end and that life will return to normal, recent climate and population models warn us that water stress in the U.S. will probably worsen with time.

What force causes such ignorance, such a blatant denial of real and present danger?

That question is not a hard one to answer.

Americans take water for granted. For most of us water is so cheap and abundant that in a single day we flush more down the toilet than more than a billion people use to cook, clean, drink and bathe. (Can you accurately guess how much water you use every day, or for what? Hint: the answer is probably north of 100 gallons).

Action to assist the water poor – at home and abroad – is desperately needed. Water poverty has a deep and lasting effect on health, education, economic opportunity, and gender equity. Changes to our own consumptive habits at home, to the ways we farm and mine and build, are equally essential if we are to thrive.

But what’s needed first is a re-discovery of the importance of water in our own lives.

Justice begins with love, and each of us is called to love the poor. But if we can’t fully appreciate the incredible gift of water in our own lives, we can’t meaningfully relate to those suffering in water poverty – rendering us powerless to help.

That’s why starting October 6 I’ll be living on just four liters of water a day for five days. I’ll be joining hundreds of other Americans in the 4Liters Challenge – a community-building sacrifice in solidarity with the poor, raising awareness and funds for communities living in water poverty – both in the US and abroad.

For a few days I will choose not to use my washing machine, not to water my lawn… not to take a shower or flush my toilet. Every drop of water will come from a one-liter soda bottle that I’ll fill four times throughout my day. And while my experience cannot begin to approximate life in a place like Tulare (much less rural Sudan), I am confident that I’ll become more empathetic in my support, more sincere in my prayer, and more eager for change.

Let’s all start there. 

-George McGraw runs the DIGDEEP Right to Water Project in Los Angeles, which he founded. DIGDEEP brings sustainable, clean water to communities around the world, while helping Americans use their own resources more intelligently. DIGDEEP is also the only global water organization bringing clean water to at-risk communities in the U.S. 

George has guest lectured in Kashmir, Japan, and the United States, and is a contributing author for publications like the Huffington PostRealClear, and various law reviews. He has been a guest of major news outlets and spoken at events hosted by the Clinton Foundation, Ford Motor Company, and TED. George holds a graduate degree in International Law from the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica. Previously, he worked for several foreign governments and consulted for the U.N. Development Programme in Afghanistan.