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Is it too much to ask for Americans to have access to clean water in 2020?

Almost exactly 10 years ago, on 28 July 2010, the United Nations declared water a human right under international law. And not just any water, but clean water – and sufficient water for “drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, personal and household hygiene”.

Imagine a country where, 10 years years on, over two million people are denied access to running water and basic indoor plumbing.

Where another 30 million live in areas where they lack access to safe drinking water.

Where 110 million people are exposed to toxic chemicals in their drinking water.

And where 15 million people have had their supply cut off because of the country’s huge water affordability crisis.

Welcome to the United States of America.

Where running water is not available to millions, where millions more can’t afford to pay their escalating water bills and where tens of millions more Americans are exposed to contaminated water.

By any metric America has a water crisis.

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And it is for this reason that the Guardian – in partnership with Consumer Reports and others – is launching a one-year series of reports and investigations highlighting the inequality, poverty, pollution and commercial forces that are at the heart of the country’s water crisis.

In addition to reporting on access to running water, the hidden crisis of affordability and widespread issue of water contamination, we are also going to investigate the billion-dollar bottled water industry. Many of these large firms plunder public water sources at low cost and then make unconscionable profits selling bottled water – sometimes to people whose public supply is contaminated.

At its most extreme, America’s water crisis impacts the two million without access to running water and indoor plumbing – a remarkable, and shameful, statistic 10 years on from the UN declaration. As the authors of that report made clear: “Many Americans believe access is universal. But in fact, millions of the most vulnerable people in the country – low-income people in rural areas, people of color, tribal communities, immigrants – have fallen through the cracks. Lacking access to safe water and sanitation makes it difficult to stay healthy, earn a living, go to school and care for a family.”

Tens of millions more Americans are at the mercy of antiquated water systems that fail to deliver safe drinking water; or are exposed to water supplies that are contaminated by industrial polluters that are insufficiently regulated. Mining, agriculture and other high-profit industries seem to have the upper hand in riding roughshod over citizens’ rights to safe and clean water.

Invariably it is poorer communities and people of color who are most impacted by water affordability or access to clean, safe water. Our series, funded in part by a philanthropic gift from 11th Hour, will look at the question of affordability with deep reporting. We will also tell stories of communities hit by water contamination problems of different kinds, in partnership with the non-profit media outlet Ensia.

Is it too much to ask for Americans to have access to clean water in 2020?

It seems so.

But there are some hopeful signs. There are a number of water bills making their way through both houses of Congress that are designed to address toxins, antiquated infrastructure and water affordability. The coronavirus pandemic has at least underscored the need for access to safe drinking water and brought more attention to the need for hygiene, including hand-washing.

But the history of Congress is littered with ambitious proposals which have then been decimated by powerful lobbyists who do the bidding of their commercial clients.

And so who will do the bidding for US citizens?

In addition to our investigations and reporting on America’s water crisis we will also, over the course of the next year, scrutinize the progress of these congressional bills in the hope that they will offer the promise of a safer, cleaner future for American water.

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