Good Water Equals Public Trust and Participation

Poverty Safety Net Wade's World Water

            Toronto           I used to say, more seriously than satirically, if we could just find an organizational formula to winning campaigns to deal with loose dogs, better garbage pickup, and improved sewerage handling, we could organize the world.  I’m now going to add cleaner water to that list.  This is thanks to reading Professor Manuel Teodoro and his co-authors’ book, The Profits of Distrust:  Citizen-Consumers, Drinking Water, and the Crisis of Confidence in American Government and then talking to him at length on Wade’s World.  I now have statistics and academics to back me up.

I asked Professor Teodoro how they came to make this linkage between peoples’ confidence in their drinking water and their participation and trust in local and other levels of government, and his answer boiled down in the beginning to fortuitous coincidence.  He noticed some things in Texas, then knowing a postdoc, now co-author and professor herself, who specialized in geomapping, and then they both ran into another professor and now also co-author who had been doing data surveys and work on water and public participation.  Their partnership made the science rigorous and unassailable.  They joined forces to track a number of hypotheses and the result in part was this book.

If citizens trust their water, then when they have issues with government, they speak up and act, or in poli-sci terms, have voice.  If they don’t, they exit, and don’t participate in forcing change, often simply making their own way with resignation, rather than anger.  Their work underlined hypotheses with proofs along these lines:

  • Individuals with low incomes and/or members of racial and ethnic minority groups are less likely to complain to their utilities about their water problems.
  • As an individual’s trust in government decreases, the likelihood that he or she drinks commercial water instead of tap water increases.
  • As commercial water sales increase, political participation will decrease.

If that’s not cause and effect, then coincidences alone are enough to get organizers thinking and organizations with membership overlapping these categories into action.

The ripple effects of bad water are more than just local according to Teodoro and his colleagues.  If bad water hit a company anywhere nearby, it reduced public trust.  If bad water impacted a subgroup you identified with or friends and relatives in distant postal codes, your confidence in the water could be shaken along with your diminished public participation.  Poorer families buy water in these situations, even though costly and a significant percentage of their income.  It’s poorer families powering the increase in purchases of water, not richer families, as you might have suspected.

Water is basic and although most water systems are local, the erosion of trust also moves up to the state and nation.  This is something that maybe the governor of Mississippi is realizing now as the crisis in Jackson’s water has made the state again a pariah, forcing him to finally help deal with the infrastructure investments.

Those very investments are part of the recommendations the book makes for restoring trust in water and therefore government.  Interestingly, they also suggest a regular water report card so that people can follow the progress on violations and improves and, essentially, trigger their voices for improvement.  That would seem a relatively easy win for a local community organization.

Reading this book and listening to Teodoro, this all makes basic common sense, but it’s obviously not so simple or plain, since so many levels of government continue not to take our water and its issues seriously, as we’ve seen in Flint, Newark, and Jackson, as well as the fights years ago against water privatization in New Orleans and Atlanta or globally in Peru, Bolivia, and elsewhere.  Heck, we’re still trying to get the lead out!

This is a wake-up call, backed by numbers, not opinions.  Take a big swallow and get moving!