We are facing an accelerating water transition. Justice is not assured. In North America, ecosystemic disruption, infrastructural failure, and social inequity remain deeply entangled.1 The “color of water”2—the racialized dimensions of water policy—has been evident in Flint, Michigan, and other majority-Black cities with lead-tainted water, like Newark and Baltimore; in the Colorado River Basin, where severe drought disproportionately impacts Latinx farmworkers and Indigenous communities like Navajo Nation, where 30 percent of families lack running water; and in groundwater contamination from fossil fuel extraction in rural, low-income communities across Appalachia and the Intermountain West. 

The concept of just transition often refers to social safety net programs, such as worker retraining and economic diversification initiatives, necessary to support fossil fuel workers and communities facing economic precarity amid the emergence of renewable energy. But just transition can also describe adaptive measures necessary for communities to respond to and thrive amid shifting hydrological conditions—floods, droughts, and aging water infrastructures. Just transition has deep roots in the US labor and environmental justice movements, referring to an alternative economic system that prioritizes environmental sustainability, social equity, and dignified work. The climate justice movement refers to just transition as “the shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy” that prioritizes “redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations.”3 This vision is capacious, emphasizing issues like food sovereignty, regenerative ecological economics, a commitment to anti-racist and anti-colonial futures, and the democratization of environmental decision-making.

For the water transition to be truly just, we must rethink the notion of relief, which implies reactive, short-term solutions to a deeper set of crises. This does not merely mean a renewed focus on proactivity—the anticipation and management of risk—but rather a shift away from the ephemerality of top-down disaster aid. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated water equity crises in almost every measurable way. Yet pandemic relief policies in the US have largely offered short-term, technocratic solutions that fail to address root causes of systemic inequity. The EPA’s loosening of enforcement and compliance with water-quality law, in response to the pandemic, did not address water equity issues. FEMA’s relief for flood insurance renewal premiums expired three months into the pandemic. The HEROES Act, passed by the House of Representatives in May 2020, offered funding for potable drinking water in Indigenous communities and grants for drinking water and wastewater assistance programs in low-income communities, but only through the end of the fiscal year. The CARES Act, passed into law in March 2020, included no climate or pandemic relief policy related to water. 

Rethinking relief means reconsidering the way we frame water crises. If we reframe Flint as the result of a racialized politics of abandonment through the privatization of public services in communities of color, it becomes clear that monetary settlements and infrastructure upgrades are but short-term, targeted responses to deeper patterns of institutional violence.4 If we properly understand Indigenous peoples’ experience of drought in the Colorado River Basin as a legacy of settler colonialism, then justice means the restoration of Indigenous cultural, political, and territorial sovereignty and increased tribal participation in drought response planning.5 In fossil fuel-rich states like Wyoming, rather than protectionist water policy supporting new dams and reservoirs, justice would mean responding to the state’s outsize role in the climate crisis and allocating resources to support an equitable transition to a low-carbon energy economy.6

In sculpture, relief describes the lowering of a field to make the artwork’s features more obvious and notable. In geography, relief describes heterogeneous topographies, landscape features less apparent on traditional political maps. To put something into “sharp relief” is to render it visible and urgent. A new grammar of relief in water policy would materialize histories of violence, dispossession, and exploitation. It would respond to diverse experiences of climate change and the demands of frontline and fenceline communities. It would be oriented toward building just, sustainable futures by responding to uniquely local needs and histories of trauma and exploitation. Water policy that is place-based and community-driven, and that deliberately avoids the reproduction of uneven power relations, can play a transformational role in institutional responses to the climate crisis.

  1. DigDeep and the US Water Alliance, “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States: A National Action Plan,” 2019, https://www.digdeep.org/close-the-water-gap ↩︎
  2. Christopher F. Petrella and Ameer Loggins, “Standing Rock, Flint, and the Color of Water,” Black Perspectives, November 2, 2016, https://www.aaihs.org/standing-rock-flint-and-the-color-of-water ↩︎
  3. Climate Justice Alliance, “Just Transition: A Framework for Change,” n.d., accessed December 8, 2021, https://climatejusticealliance.org/just-transition ↩︎
  4. Laura Pulido, “Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 27, no. 3 (2016): 12, https://doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2016.1213013 ↩︎
  5. See Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future (New York: Verso Books, 2019); and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long as Grass Grows (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019) ↩︎
  6. Angus M. Theurmer Jr., “Wyo Looks to Store, Divert More Water as Lake Powell Dries Up,” WyoFile, July 27, 2021, https://wyofile.com/wyo-looks-to-store-divert-more-water-as-lake-powell-dries-up ↩︎