Deanna Miller Berry first learned of the scores of complaints about Denmark, South Carolina’s water supply, during her 2017 mayoral campaign.
For at least a decade, residents of the rural, predominantly Black and lower-income town “knew something was happening” and tried to sound the alarm, said Berry. “A lot of folks [were] complaining that they were starting to get sick, hair loss and skin issues.”
Berry lost that mayoral race, but has continued to fight for access to clean water and sanitation. After teaming up with a group from Flint, Michigan – another predominantly Black and lower-income community with a history of contaminated water – Berry learned that Denmark was allowing HaloSan, a non-EPA-approved pesticide, to be pumped into the city’s water supply. Although Denmark told residents in 2018 they discontinued the use of HaloSan, Berry said the work to ensure residents have access to clean and affordable water isn’t over.
More than 2 million people living in the United States lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation, according to a report from the US Water Alliance, a non-profit organization focused on sustainable water access in the country. Experts say that extreme weather events associated with the climate crisis are likely to exacerbate existing issues with the water infrastructure in the US, and that poor communities are likely to feel the effects of climate change on access to clean water first.
The pandemic has made the issue of lack of access to clean water and sanitation even more glaring and pressing, said Maureen Taylor, a lifelong activist in Detroit, Michigan, who has been fighting against similar price hikes and shutoffs in the city, which she said have greatly affected lower-income residents. “You have to wash your hands,” she said. “How are you going to do that if your water is turned off?”
Women, in particular women of color, have been deeply embedded in the water justice movement even before the movement’s official origins in the early 1990s, when a national coalition of activists and academics came together for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership summit, said Dr Dorceta Taylor, a professor at Yale’s School of the Environment and an expert on the Environmental Justice movement.
“Even though you see many kinds of references to the fathers of environmental justice, there are grandmothers, mothers and women that have been doing it from the very onset in every aspect of it,” said Taylor.
Many of these women have banded together to share strategies, support each other and fight the larger national battle for water justice in ways they couldn’t as individuals, experts say.
“If the toilet or the sewage flows back into the house it’s women dealing with it and trying to protect themselves and their children too,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and an activist in Lowndes county, Alabama. “So, I’m not surprised that most of the water warriors I’ve met have been women.”
“There are multiple families who live in this city who do not have water in their home right now because we cannot afford the drinking water,” said Berry, who herself hasn’t had running water for three weeks since the beginning of March because she can’t afford to pay her water bill.
Berry said that the cost of getting her water turned back on after not being able to afford the payments in January or February would be nearly $2,800, which is four times her rent. Each day, she receives anywhere from 25 to 60 calls a day from residents unable to pay their own water bills who fear drinking the water even if it was affordable. “We’re not going to believe what the heck tells us,” she said. “They felt comfortable poisoning this city for 10 years.”
Although Covid-19 has put a pause on many of the larger gatherings between activists in places like Detroit and Denmark, South Carolina, the relationships between women working on water activism in different communities have continued to be central to their organizing. And, the fact that advocates like Berry, who lives in a small southern town, have deep connections with activists in places like Flint isn’t an accident.
From the very beginning, there was a collective understanding that to prevent bad actors from simply shifting the problem from one marginalized community to the next, water justice activists needed to communicate and work together, said Taylor. “Everyone understood to build a movement you needed to know each other,” she said. “What might look local, or hyper-local on the surface is actually connected.”
For activist BarbiAnn Maynard, in Martin county, Kentucky, a poor and predominantly white, rural county, according to the US census, which has had decades of issues with drinking water pollution, the fight for water equity has always stretched beyond the problems in her community. “We have a major US water crisis,” she said, “and just because it isn’t in the news in all of these small towns doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”
Maynard, who has been working alongside other activists such as Flowers for more than 20 years, said that she is contacted by activists in small towns just like hers, looking for advice multiple times a week.
“They’re like, ‘You’ve been doing this for so long … we want to learn from you and your experiences. That way we don’t have to do the same things and go through that whole long, 20-years process. We want to start where you are now.”
For younger female activists like 31-year-old Calandra Davis in Jackson, Mississippi, which was recently in the news after residents went weeks without running water, even if they aren’t in direct contact with “water warriors” in other cities, they’re still building off previous water and environmental justice efforts. “A lot of people have been doing this work for years,” said Davis. “So, we’re building on decades of movement work.”
Back in Denmark, Berry said that she’s confident that together women like herself can use their coalition to push for water and environmental justice on a broader scale despite her circumstances.
“We know the only way we can do it is together,” said Berry. “Women know how to work together and make it happen … we have a certain level of fight in us and we’re just not willing to back down when it comes to what we believe in.”