A Global Challenge: Solving Water and Health Problems from Rural Appalachia to China | VTX
Inadequate access to safe drinking water remains a significant global challenge for low-income rural communities around the world.
Due to a history of underinvestment combined with technical challenges posed by the topography of Appalachia, many people in Appalachia have adapted to a life with a number of inequalities, one being the lack of safe and reliable drinking water. Many live without a public water system and have to go to great lengths to find drinking water.
But this question extends far beyond the great mountains of Virginia. From central Appalachia to China and everywhere in between, water contamination and unreliable access to clean drinking water are issues of concern in poor rural areas.
“Exposure to contaminated drinking water is a problem that disproportionately affects people living in rural areas in low- and middle-income countries around the world, as well as here in the United States,” said Alasdair Cohen. , assistant professor of environmental epidemiology at the Department of Population Health Sciences to Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and an affiliate faculty member of the Fralin Institute of Life Sciences. “We also observed that bottled water addiction appears to be growing rapidly in many low-income countries and rural areas.”
America prides itself on having one of the safest and most reliable drinking water systems in the world, but the reality is that 1.7 million Americans don’t have reliable access to safe drinking water. , according to a report 2019 from Dig Deep.
This figure comes as no surprise to water and public health specialists like Cohen and Leigh Anne Krometis, associate professor at the Department of Biological Systems Engineering in the College of Engineering and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciencesand stresses the need to stop labeling water challenges as a developing country problem.
“I think there’s a certain humility that Americans should have, since we haven’t solved our problems here,” added Krometis, who is also a faculty member affiliated with the Global Change Center. “I believe we can learn from developing countries. I think the extreme challenges they face mean they have solutions that we don’t. We always export solutions, but we have to solve our own.
So why isn’t clean water reaching Appalachian communities?
Rural and remote areas have more severe disparities for a number of reasons, but most come down to the region’s topography and financial instability.
If the water utility companies are to supply water to the mountainous region, they must overcome the law of gravity. Because water is such a dense liquid, they have to use a lot of electricity to propel it up the mountains and slow it down on its way back. It is also expensive for them to travel and provide pipes for sparsely distributed homes.
But while water is expensive for them, it is even more so for Appalachian households. Water providers must compensate for maintenance and extended piping by inflating the cost per connection. In remote areas, the cost per connection can reach $100,000 per residence, while urban areas may only have to pay $1,000.
“Water and sewer are expensive and technically difficult utilities to provide in many remote rural areas,” said Cohen, who is also an affiliate faculty member at the Global Change Center. “Most of the time, it is not economically or logistically possible for utilities to build new public water systems in mountainous regions with low population density.”
Because the region’s public water systems are incredibly expensive, private water systems, such as groundwater wells and cisterns, are the primary source of drinking water for many people in Appalachia. But wells are work. Private water systems are not regulated by federal agencies, which means it is up to homeowners to treat and care for them. It’s a laborious process that many people don’t have the time or money for.
As a result, many pipes in central Appalachia are obsolete and heavily corroded, which means metals from the pipes and bacteria from the surrounding soil can end up in many groundwater wells. Fortunately, corrosion is sometimes easy to spot. Everything that comes into contact with polluted water – toilets, showers and towels – takes on a rusty orange color.
The presence of metals in the water gave residents a horrible taste in their mouths, both literally and metaphorically, so many turned to tastier, more natural sources.
Roadside springs have been a reliable source of water for generations of Appalachians. For some, natural water from Macgyvered metal and PVC pipes is all they have ever known. Although many are simply breaking tradition, locals use the springs for all sorts of reasons. Some believe that spring water is purer, clearer and tastes much better than tap or well water. However, many sources are untested and unregulated.
“Some people think that because the springs are clear and come from a mountain, they must be safe,” Krometis said. “The problem is that the water can be crystal clear even when it has been physically contaminated.”
A study 2019 by Krometis investigated 19 roadside springs in mountainous rural areas of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Seventeen of the sources tested positive for E. coli, a coliform bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal illness when ingested in large amounts.
With a withered reliance on orange-tinted faucets and natural springs, many households in central Appalachia have become partially, if not completely, dependent on bottled water. Contrary to popular belief, bottled water is not always safer than tap water.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only requires companies to test bottled water weekly for microbial contaminants, but utilities generally test water daily.
In a study published in 2020, Cohen and colleagues investigated the use of boiling water and bottled water in more than 1,000 households in rural China. Faecal coliforms were found in 51% of the bottled water samples tested.
“A liter of bottled water can be a thousand times more expensive than a liter of tap water,” Cohen said. “The relatively high rates of bottled water use we observed are concerning because low-income households spend a significant portion of their income on drinking water.”
Currently, there are programs in Appalachia to educate and provide a variety of low-cost, easy-to-use technologies that residents and homeowners can use to treat their private wells.
Cohen and Krometis are currently collaborating on field research projects to better understand drinking water contamination and bottled water use in rural areas of central Appalachia. Krometis and his lab are also designing bacterial disinfection kits that will be left at certain sources for the community to use. For now, researchers can only continue to build trust with Appalachian communities, inform them of their risks, and collect drinking water data.