In Defense of Water and Climate

5 min readOct 11, 2018

This week, the United Nations shared terrifying news: if we do not make drastic changes to slow climate change, global temperatures will reach levels that endanger the lives of hundreds of millions of people much sooner than previously thought — as soon as 2030. Millions, especially those living in frontline and coastal communities, are already feeling the devastating effects of water-related climate change effects like flooding, drought, and extreme storms.

As we face the undeniable fact that the health and livelihood of billions of people is inextricably intertwined with water-related climate events, we need to care about who is included in conversations about how to address it.

While we know that marginalized communities are the least responsible for the climate impacts, they are consistently the most vulnerable to these harms. At the same time, these communities are also showing the most promising leadership to mitigate these harms and offer sustainable solutions. This was unfortunately reflected at last months’ Global Climate Action Summit, where the voices of frontline communities were largely missing from the formal agenda. That is why our organizations, PolicyLink and the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, are committed to lifting up leaders from within the frontline communities most affected by water-related climate change challenges.

Reminders of the intersection of race, poverty, water, and climate issues are sadly not difficult to find. The cities of Flint and Detroit, Michigan are at the top of a long list of working-class communities struggling to access clean and affordable drinking water from their public utility. In California, Latinx farmworker communities continually face the dual impacts of drought-related water shortages and agricultural chemical-polluted drinking water. The 2018 hurricanes highlighted the flooding and storm surge vulnerabilities of the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard communities. In south Louisiana, state and local officials are engaging in relocating tribal communities from the Louisiana coast — the first federally-funded relocation due to increasing severe storm and flooding risks.

Colette Pichon Battle, Gulf South Rising, talks about grappling with sea-level rise, the relocation of communities as a result of this climate-related issue, and the need to connect organizing with policy shifts.

All of these threats are exacerbated by the oil and gas operations that fuel climate change, and the large-scale agricultural businesses, oil refineries, and waste management plants that are disproportionately placed near marginalized communities, resulting in polluted water and other environmental health threats.

But these same frontline communities, disproportionately communities of color and low-income communities, are also leading the charge against climate injustice, working to establish policies that transition away from climate-damaging fossil fuels and practices that safeguard equitable access to clean water and protections from weather- and climate-related hazards. Indigenous communities across North America — from Standing Rock tribe on the Missouri River headwaters, Ojibwe tribe in the Great Lakes, and Idle No More communities of the Bay Area — are working to fight against threats to both climate and clean water. The Community Water Center and the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability have been leaders in establishing the first statewide Human Right to Water in the US (in California), and in advancing resources and regulation to realize this right in practice. At September’s Global Climate Action Summit, frontline communities, led by indigenous leaders, called for just transition from fossil fuels in the parks and streets surrounding the summit.

Nick Tilsen, NDN Collective, tells the story of his community’s innovative work to bring about water equity on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

This exemplary leadership has led our organizations to convene a 61-member Water Equity and Climate Resilience Caucus to support and galvanize these leaders’ work — calling for political action that not only recognizes the importance of water equity to climate change, but centers the strengths, challenges, and voices of low-income communities and communities of color who are at the front lines of this urgent battle for a water and climate-safe future.

To do this, federal, state and local policymakers must prioritize three things: representation, access, and economic opportunity.

By representation, we mean that frontline communities should be in positions to drive the water and climate policies that impact their lives — from voice on governing bodies to specific municipal, state, federal and tribal policies prioritizing vulnerable communities.

By access, we mean that all people in the U.S. have a right to clean, affordable water, as well as flood and drought protection. Because those who are poor are least likely to have this access, we need to target investments to communities distressed with Clean Water Act violations, unaffordable drinking water, or those threatened by pollution.

Susana DeAnda, Co-Founder & Co-Director, Community Water Center, speaks on water inequities and changing systems to ensure everyone access to clean, affordable drinking water.

Finally, building climate resilience will require broad-scale investments. These investments have the potential to reap climate and economic equity benefits, if we ensure that the new jobs and business opportunities created by next-generational climate resilience efforts reach communities struggling with the interrelated challenges of poverty, economic disinvestment, and environmental racism.

We cannot hope to escape the enormous and impending costs of climate change, both in dollars and human lives, without radical investment. But we face a powerful opportunity to tackle this issue in a way that not only brings environmental sustainability, but begins to heal the damage of decades of racial and economic injustice.

Kalima Rose is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity. Over the last decade, Kalima played leadership roles in implementing the federal Sustainable Communities initiative, the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, and key equitable development initiatives in New Orleans’ Katrina recovery.

Colette Pichon Battle is the Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy located in Louisiana, a regional public interest law firm and justice center that promotes structural shifts toward equity for communities of color on the frontline of climate change. She is a 2015 Echoing Green Climate Fellow and a 2016 White House Champion of Change for Climate Equity. Since 2005, Colette has worked on Equitable Disaster Recovery, Community Economic Development and Climate Displacement/Migration in the 5 state Gulf South Region.




PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity by Lifting Up What Works®