top of page
  • Writer's pictureEmily Lombardo

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink

A city in one of the world's richest countries with no drinking water? That was the case for tens of thousands of residents of Flint, Michigan in the United States in 2014. Welcome to the concept of Environmental Racism… in this article, we take a look at this hard-hitting topic and some of the movements seeking to address the injustices.

In 2014, the city of Flint left the Detroit water supply to use the Flint River as their new supply, while waiting for construction of a regional, rebooted old water plant. However, this plant failed to receive the resources nor the foresight to make sure that the water reaching citizens was safe to drink.

Flint citizens, a 100,000 majority Black person city, subsequently suffered the consequences. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to drinking lead-contaminated water and 12 people died from Legionnaires disease over an 18-month period - despite an escalation of resident complaints.

While the problem was exposed to international media, the long-term effects of this damage to the Black community in Flint are still unknown. Only in the last month, has there been action to hold government officials accountable and to compensate residents.

The Flint Water Crisis is a clear example of what is known as “environmental racism.” A term coined by civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis in 1982. Chavis defined environmental racism as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements.

Environmental racism is part of a system that can take many forms. From schools in low-income neighbourhoods that are made up of buildings with asbestos and black mold to living in closer proximity to where companies release pollutants and toxic waste. People of Color may be forced to live in areas where their health is impacted by hazardous environmental conditions, while higher-income communities live in areas without the same health hazards.

In a study conducted from 2003 - 2015 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Latinx Americans and Black Americans are exposed to 63% more pollution and 56% more pollution respectively than they produce while non-Hispanic White Americans are exposed to 17% fewer pollutants than they produce. In the book “Sacrifice Zones,” author Steve Lerner tells the story of 12 low-income and minority communities, areas that he has coined ‘sacrifice zones,’ across the U.S. who live in high-polluted areas without regulations or protections. The residents have become activists and are fighting against the industries and military bases responsible for the pollution.

Environmental racism is a familiar story outside of the USA, too. Black, African, and Caribbean communities in London are exposed to 15% of all Londoners exposed to nitrogen dioxide while only making up 13% of the population. The European Environmental Bureau found 32 instances across 5 countries against the nomadic Roma community including the absence of clean water, sanitation services, and rubbish collecting services. Many Roma communities are also left with no choice but to live on polluted wastelands or landfills.

How can we fight environmental racism? Grassroots movements across countries are working hard to ensure that minority or vulnerable communities are protected from the brunt of environmental hazards and climate change.

Here are a few ways to get involved:

  • See if you can volunteer with a local grassroots organization to help people who are directly suffering from environmental racism.

  • Education is power, too. Learn about the communities affected and advocate for positive change to your local government.

  • When you see instances of injustice, escalate them if you’re in a safe position to do so, and help encourage the systemic change needed.

  • Support renewable and clean energy initiatives, like community solar projects, whenever possible that can benefit People of Color and low-income neighborhoods.

What has helped your community fight environmental racism? We’d love to hear! Join the conversations via our Instagram channel, or say hi to the team at



bottom of page