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The heat waves wracking the country are bad enough on their own. But they’re colliding with another crisis: The water is running low.
Throughout June, persistent triple-digit temperatures have blanketed the Bible Belt, sometimes exceeding 120 F. This unrelenting heat wave has spurred lasting power outages, hailstorms and tornadoes and physical illnesses across Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas — a “ring of fire” effect of self-reinforcing air currents, humidity and heat domes wreaking damage across the South.
In some parts of Texas, the Weather Channel noted, the heat wave has “rewritten the history books for all-time record heat.” Punishing as the ordeal has already been for tens of millions of Americans, this hot weather may last through early July and leak into the Southwest, potentially hitting Arizona and New Mexico with more wildfires and gusty winds. As ocean-surface temperatures breach alarming thresholds, killing off thousands of fish, and El Niño makes its grim return, the South’s plight makes clear that this season will set another record for climate change-fuelled extreme weather.
In the midst of this disaster loop, plenty of attention has turned to regional electricity capacity. Oklahoma and Louisiana are still repairing storm-wrecked power lines, and Texas’ standalone, notoriously weakened grid has again asked residents to voluntarily cut back their energy use, including air conditioning. (Thankfully, the state’s ample solar installations have staved off the potential for grid collapse, in spite of lawmakers’ attempts to hurt the renewables industry.) Yet far less attention has been paid to the forced scarcity of another, equally important, equally endangered resource: the water supply.
Among the devastating health effects of searing heat, which kills more Americans than any other form of extreme weather, dehydration is paramount. Excess, unchecked body-water deprivation resulting from sweat and dry skin — as well as lack of ready water supply for intake, thanks to heat-linked system breakdowns and drought conditions — can presage more dire physical ailments like kidney damage and high blood pressure, leading to heart attacks and strokes. Despite this fact, some of these heat-wave-ridden states have taken steps to reduce their residents’ water availability. Or, as in the case of Mississippi, they’ve continued to neglect longtime drinking-water crises even as the terrible heat comes to town.
Last month, the Texas Tribune reported, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill nullifying local ordinances that require construction companies to grant their workers 10-minute breaks for water and shade every four hours — even though Texas sees the most heat-related labour deaths of any state. The law doesn’t go into effect until September, but the types of consequences it will have are already apparent: In Dallas, which has such a soon-to-be-nullified regulation on the books, postal worker Eugene Gates Jr. died of heat illness while travelling his letter-carrying route. Near Dallas, the city of Boyd is facing a boil-water notice thanks to a damaged system, while an important High Plains aquifer is gradually running dry.
The essential workers the Lone Star State relies on during these nonstop climate crises — to transport mail and supplies, to fix strained water and electricity infrastructure, to manage outdoor food sources — will be the first and hardest hit by the fatal heat their jobs won’t let them avoid.
It’s not just Texas; most states, with the exception of California, Oregon, and Washington, have no mandatory heat protections for outdoor labourers. Still, insidious ways of limiting even more water relief are spreading. The Supreme Court recently denied the Navajo Nation the right to have the federal government ensure its access to steady, secure water infrastructure. The baffling ruling arrives at a moment when Navajo Nation citizens, about half of whom lack reliable plumbing, are being incentivized to further reduce water consumption thanks to a federally mandated interstate deal to ration water portions afforded from the Colorado River. It also comes at a moment when Arizona stands to build out large industrial facilities for battery manufacturing and chipmaking — both of which require ample amounts of water use.
Americans are losing their access to water at the worst possible moment. #ClimateChange #Health #Labour #ExtremeWeather #DrinkingWaterCrises
Another group of Southern Americans feeling the piercing sun without guaranteed water on hand: prisoners. Just about every state suffering through this heat wave is known for fostering carceral conditions that deprive their populations of basic necessities — like water. In Texas, whose legislature refuses to properly fund prison cooling services, incarcerated people dealing with malfunctioning systems are often forced to consume and cool themselves with dirty toilet water, despite local protocols requiring that they be provided extra water, ice and time for cold showers. When it comes to people interred in Alabama, a criminal justice advocate told The Guardian, “A lot of the time, they don’t have any water to drink. They don’t have ice, they don’t have anything.” Arizona prisons, in particular, have seen repeated water-system breakdowns that take an excruciatingly long time to fix. Yet the nationwide issues with correctional-facility water are treated with little urgency, even as heat conditions in those prisons grow more unbearable year after year.
Across huge swaths of the country, an already-pressing heat wave is set to fester and worsen in the following months. Yet local and national governments seem entirely unconcerned about the precious need for available potable water, even as those struck by blistery conditions need it more than ever. What will it take to finally get their attention?