The Price of Comfort

It may surprise some Americans to know that within our thriving, capitalist culture there is a growing segment of people living in third world conditions, with limited access to water and proper sanitation. What is not surprising is most of these people live in or on the edge of poverty. In an era of large corporate tax cuts and the slashing of social welfare programs, what will become of people without access to services most of us consider essential?

The prognoses for their return to normalcy looks bleak. Researchers at Michigan State University are projecting “the number of U.S. households unable to afford water could triple in five years, to nearly 36 percent”. The study concluded there are three main factors behind rising water rates: aging infrastructure, shrinking populations in urban areas and climate change.

Population trends show wealthier citizens moving out of inner cities and into the suburbs, leaving lower income residents to fend off the costs of large, aging infrastructures. Detroit is a perfect example of this type of mass exodus of wealth out of large cities.

In a March 22, 2016 online article, Circle of Blue reporter Brett Walton describes how after World War II, Detroit was the wealthiest city in America with a population of 1.8 million people, 80% of whom were white. Now its population is 680,000 (less than half of its peak) and 80% black with 40% percent of them living below the poverty level. Walton states “Those remaining have inherited the legacy costs of a city built for an absent 1 million people.”

Detroit is not the only city facing an uphill water pricing battle. A December 13, 2017 Circle of Blue online report featured a similar story for Philadelphia. The piece notes how the Philadelphia Water Department has about 86,000 household accounts, but one in five accounts have had their water shut off at least once over the last 5 years largely because of overdue bills. The culprit here is not only lack of money but also local policy.

The problems of aging infrastructure are well known among the utilities sector. This issue has been highlighted over the past several years in various technical media. The 2012 American Water Works Association (AWWA) report “Buried No Longer – Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge” revealed that “restoring existing water systems and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years.”

In a 2016 American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) report, every American household is projected to lose $3,400 annually between 2016 and 2025 because of deteriorating infrastructure. Furthermore, the 2016 ASCE report contends the economic impact of America’s infrastructure issues could cost 2.5 million jobs by 2025 and up to 5.8 million jobs by 2040 if appropriate investments are not made.  Clearly, the time to act is now.

In addition to aging infrastructure and shrinking urban populations, climate change has been implicated in future water pricing trends. Scientists are increasingly finding evidence directly linking extreme weather events to human-caused climate change, suggesting that observed trends are likely to continue.

This is startling when you consider The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a compilation of “U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather & Climate Disasters 1980-2017”. In the report they detail 218 weather and climate disasters that have occurred since 1980 in which overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. As we have seen again this past year with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, these large weather events are becoming more common. If this trend continues, we have to ask how much more can our economy take?

If our overall economy is at risk, what chance do our poorest citizens have of maintaining basic services? There must be a better way.

From Pesky to Pestilent

A pesky, purple cartoon mosquito adorned T-shirts given out by the Massachusetts General Hospital blood donor program in the 1990s, encouraging participants to “Starve a Mosquito – Donate Blood.” This whimsical, uplifting logo once used to promote blood donation might be given second thought today as a plethora of mosquito-caused diseases have been spreading around the world.

Mosquito

In 2015 and 2016, news media covered numerous stories on the Zika virus transmitted by species of mosquitos called Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. The primary concern being pregnant women infected with Zika having a higher probability of giving birth to children with a serious birth defect known as microcephaly, in which the brain and head are underdeveloped.

One of the areas hardest hit by Zika was Brazil. A July 14, 2017 article on the USA Today website noted a significant spike in microcephaly cases since the outbreak. Specifically, they stated “Brazilian health officials have confirmed more than 1,600 cases of microcephaly since the Zika outbreak began, about 10 times more than usual.”

This year, Brazil has been hit with yet another bout of mosquito-induced illness. This time Yellow Fever, a serious viral infection that can lead to organ failure, coma and possibly death. A June 8th, 2017 article in the Arizona Republic reported that at least 263 Brazilians had contracted Yellow Fever and that “the current outbreak is the nation’s worst on record.”

What was even more interesting is a possible link with climate change. According to the Arizona Republic article, the epicenter of the yellow fever outbreak “just recovered from their worst drought in 80 years.” A situation which can be taken advantage of by mosquitos whose “eggs can survive dry weather in a state of suspended animation” for years at a time.  Once the rains come, several years-worth of eggs may hatch at once, facilitating an outbreak.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that climate change is solely responsible for the Yellow Fever outbreak. Still, it does make you wonder what other diseases or disasters are waiting to be unleashed as environmental conditions fluctuate.

Fortunately, there are organizations studying scenarios where climate change and disease may coincide. One of these groups is the World Health Organization (WHO), whose primary role is to assist with international health issues for countries within the United Nations’ system.

WHO has been studying the connections between climate change and infectious disease for years. In 2003, WHO published a lengthy report on “Climate Change and Human Health – Risks and Responses.” Chapter 6 of the Report includes several “observed and predicted climate/infectious disease links”, which details how environmental changes may impact 14 different infectious diseases. (Much of their research can be found on their website at www.who.int.)

As the pendulum swings backward on climate change initiatives here in the United States, it’s good to know there are organizations and associations with a more progressive agenda.  At some point, our right-leaning government will have to come back to center and start acknowledging climate change is real. Our planet cannot afford to have one of the top industrialized nations in the world continue to favor the partisan interests of a few at the expense of the many.

Until commonsense prevails and public policy changes, pesky mosquitoes in some parts of the world will continue to be the source of pestilence around the world.

Are we collectively prepared to accept this outcome?