Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

When Water Poverty Hits Home

George McGraw


By George McGraw

October 20, 2014

Imagine for a moment, turning on your kitchen tap and nothing comes out. When you visit the bathroom, the same thing. You even try your garden hose before realizing that your neighbors don't have water either. Twelve hours later, the water still hasn’t come on. Three months later, no change. There’s no utility company to call, no National Guard to intervene… just the pervasive feeling of powerlessness and disbelief. You thought that spending hours a day collecting water was something only rural Africans worried about. Suddenly, water poverty hits much closer to home. 

Not too long ago, the people in Tulare County, CA would have dismissed this thought experiment as a distant nightmare. But today, over 1000 of Tulare’s 7300 residents rely on charitable water deliveries or costly bottled water for every drop they use to drink, cook, clean, and bathe.

Groundwater has fallen by more than sixty feet in most places, and as the drought continues to intensify in California, thousands more wells will run dry. Tulare is just four hours from San Francisco, and its recent descent into water poverty seems like the canary in the coal mine. But Tulare’s crisis hasn’t made much of an impression on other Californians – let alone Americans at large. In fact, just a few hundred miles away, it’s hard to know that there’s a drought at all. While residents of Tulare County spend $10 a day scraping together three gallons of clean water, San Franciscans use over a hundred gallons per person at home. 

US water poverty is nothing new. Undocumented migrants, the urban homeless, 13% of Native Americans… all of these communities have suffered for decades without regular access to water and sanitation. Perhaps Tulare is a much-needed reminder that there’s work to be done. 

But this drought – and the water poverty that comes with it – presents a new and unique challenge. For the first time, families in places like rural California (and in a different way, Detroit) are losing the water access they once enjoyed. While these men and women begin a new life in water poverty, the rest of the country continues to consume more water per capita than any other developed nation.

We’re witnessing the birth of a “basic necessities gap” – an inequality potentially more sinister and unpredictable than disparities in income.  And while we hope that the drought will end and that life will return to normal, recent climate and population models warn us that water stress in the United States will probably worsen with time.

Americans take water for granted. For most of us, water is so cheap and abundant that in a single day, we flush more down the toilet than more than a billion people use to cook, clean, drink, and bathe. Water poverty has a deep and lasting effect on health, education, economic opportunity, and gender equity. Changes to our own consumptive habits at home, to the ways we farm and mine and build, are essential if we are to thrive. Action to assist the water poor, at home and abroad, is desperately needed.

In order to do this, we need first to rediscover the importance of water in our own lives. To that end, the 4Liters Challenge initiative builds solidarity with the poor and raises awareness and funds for communities living in water poverty – both in the United States and around the world. The project challenges participants to set aside at least twenty-four hours during which they do not use their washing machines, water their lawns, take a shower, or flush a toilet. Every drop of water for the day comes from a one-liter soda bottle that is filled four times throughout the day.

Justice begins with love, and each of us is called to love the poor. But if we can’t fully appreciate the incredible gift of water in our own lives, we can’t meaningfully relate to those suffering in water poverty, rendering us powerless to help. While initiatives like the 4Liters Challenge cannot begin to approximate life in a place like Tulare (much less rural Sudan), they can help us become more empathetic in our support, more sincere in our prayer, and more eager for change.

A version of this article first appeared on, an online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do public justice.

- George McGraw is the founder of the DIGDEEP Right to Water Project in Los Angeles. DIGDEEP brings sustainable, clean water to communities around the world, while helping Americans use their own resources more intelligently. DIGDEEP is also the only global water organization bringing clean water to at-risk communities in the United States. 


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”