George McGraw started DigDeep to ensure that every American has clean, running water.
Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.
George McGraw started DigDeep to help communities without water and sanitation infrastructure get it. That work began in Africa, until he saw how extensive the problem is in the U.S. According to the latest research published by George and his team, at least two million Americans don’t have running water or a flush toilet. Ashoka’s Lorena García Durán spoke with him about the problem, why it exists, and how communities are stepping up to solve it.
George, what’s the biggest misconception about water access in America?
Most people think the global water crisis is only an issue in other countries. They believe that everyone in the U.S. already has access to running water and a flush toilet. And that’s simply not true – over 2 million Americans still don’t.
It has to do with the way we built infrastructure across this country. Starting in the 1930s, the federal government made massive investments in water and sanitation systems. It was a huge priority, because policy-makers knew that access to water and toilets would mean better public health. But some communities were deliberately excluded, and others simply overlooked or ignored.
The 2-plus million Americans who lack access today – who are they and where do they live?
They’re in all 50 states, mostly low-income, rural people of color but some in and near our cities or in economically depressed regions like Appalachia. Still, race is the strongest indicator of whether or not you have running water in 2019. If you’re black or Latinx, you’re twice as likely as a white household not to have running water or basic plumbing. If you’re Indigenous, you’re 19x more likely.
If you live in a community with no or limited access, what are your options?
For a long time, you were told to move. That’s not an option if you can’t afford to relocate, or if you’re Indigenous and living on your ancestral land. Others were told to “just wait” for infrastructure to catch up with them. Meanwhile, water technology got more complicated and federal investment in water infrastructure dropped off a cliff; it’s now just a small percentage of what it once was. So not only is the pool of money available to these communities smaller, but most of it is tied up in loans that saddle them with debt, not in grants as it was for the rest of the country.
This is where DigDeep comes in, right?
Exactly. We tell these communities: there’s a third option. You don’t have to “move” or “wait” – you can organize. We help communities without running water or flush toilets come together to develop safe, low-tech systems that get them the hot and cold running water they need.
What are some of these hacks?
Each of our projects is unique to the place we’re working. Take the Navajo Nation, for instance, the country’s largest reservation. About 40% of families there haul water home every day in buckets and bottles, and sometimes it’s dirty and makes them sick. Drilling individual wells is too expensive and difficult, and traditional water and sewer lines are impossible in many of these remote areas.
So we help the communities organize around a trucking system that transports water from a few central wells to their homes. The water is treated, chlorinated, stored, then placed in water trucks that are driven by community members — mostly school bus drivers. School bus drivers are an incredible, untapped resource. They have a commercial drivers license and a big chunk of free time between their morning and evening runs. Plus, they know their community like the back of their hand. They often just deliver clean drinking water along their bus routes.
In each home we install an underground cistern that holds 1200 gallons of clean water and uses solar power to pump it into the house through heaters and filters and sinks. In the end, Navajo families get the same hot and cold running water that most other Americans take for granted – but through a new kind of system that their community owns, operates and manages. It’s called the Navajo Water Project, and it’s incredible.
Parts of Appalachia, a predominantlywhite and low-income area, also have severe water challenges. The water systems in communities like McDowell County, WV, have completely failed. The coal mines used to maintain them, but since mining operations shut down, the water has too. The few people I’ve talked to lucky enough to have some running water have been on a 7-year boil advisory, and they only get a trickle of water a few days a week. Many others collect it from roadside springs, many of which are contaminated.
There, we’ve been working with a local food bank called 5 Loaves, 2 Fishes to install atmospheric water generators. These are essentially solar panels that pull water from the air and purify it. The food bank distributes the water in reusable containers. In this case, it’s an imperfect fix and we’re looking for longer term solutions.
But think about it – if you don’t have easy access to clean, running water or a toilet, you’re living an emergency; you’re in crisis mode. So sometimes the important thing is that we do what we can now.
Who are your main partners?
Impacted communities. They’re the best positioned to solve this problem, and they care the most. We have other friends from foundations, and water and infrastructure technology companies, Rotary clubs, and plumbing and pipefitting unions. Lord I love working with plumbers; they’re some of the most intelligent, caring, and capable people I’ve ever met. And we need more of them desperately.
What’s on the horizon for you and DigDeep?
We’ve just published the first national report on water and sanitation access. It still seems crazy to me that we even had to publish it; that should be the federal government’s job. But government isn’t doing a good job of measuring the problem or supporting communities in need. In some parts of the country, including six states and Puerto Rico, we’re actually backsliding. People are losing the access to water they once had. We’re even seeing a resurgence of water-related diseases we thought we had eradicated in the U.S.
Now that we have the data in hand, it’s time to use it to bring visibility and resources to these communities and “close the water gap” once and for all.
Why is now an important moment?
So many of us take our water for granted, but water is finally making headlines. First Standing Rock, then the crisis in Detroit and Flint. The country is waking up to the fact that just turning on the tap might not be a given, and finally learning that in some communities, it never was. Now more than ever, we’re in a moment where we need to support, include, and uplift each other. We need to give each other the best opportunity we can to live meaningful, productive, happy lives. I’ll be over here working on practical, community-led solutions that get us there.
George McGraw is a 2019 Ashoka Fellow. Read more about him and his work here.
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