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Climate change, equity must be at forefront of water system planning, Kresge’s White-Newsome tells World Water Tech experts


Caring for aging grandparents may be an unusual segue into climate change resilience work, but that’s what led Kresge Senior Environment Program Officer Jalonne White-Newsome into the field, she told an audience at the World Water Tech North America Summit in Toronto recently.

Jalonne White-Newsome

Giving a keynote speech at the gathering on Oct. 19, White-Newsome said her concern about how extreme heat affected her 90-something grandparents led her to explore the disproportionate impact heat events have on senior citizens, low-income people and others without the means to protect themselves from increasingly hot weather.

“I discovered … inadequacies in our systems that prevent us from adapting to heat-related climate impacts,” she said. They are the very same inadequacies that “limit our ability right now to adapt to ‘water related concerns’ exacerbated by climate change,” she told the audience of about 250 made up of general managers of water utilities, regulators, engineers, impact investors, water tech entrepreneurs and others.

Issues of extreme heat bear many similarities to those of “extreme water,” like flooding, sewage backups, supply shortages and inequitable rate structures, she said. Among the parallels:

  • Low-income residents typically live in areas where they are most vulnerable to both heat- and water-related disasters – like low-lying areas and neighborhoods in dense cities with heat-island effects and lots of impermeable surfaces.
  • Physical infrastructure necessary to bring people relief is typically less available – and more dilapidated – in low-income communities. Cooling centers and other support services are often lacking during heat waves; and water infrastructure to mitigate flooding and sewer backups is typically older and less reliable in poor neighborhoods.

“Whether it’s extreme heat or extreme water, there are some similar risks, similar vulnerabilities, similar inequities and some similar solutions,” she said.

The first step toward finding solutions is acknowledging the problem: the failure of multiple systems to protect the environment, property and people in some places. “Regardless of your socio-economic status, your race, your level of income, your zip code or level of privilege – everyone has the human right to access clean, healthy and safe water,” she said.

Equity, she proposed, should be a new measure of how well services are being provided in the water sector. Incorporating diversity and inclusion in decision-making processes that are often opaque will help create solutions that work for all residents – not just those with means.

To achieve that, key questions must be asked by managers, investors, planners, engineers, consultants and members of local water boards. Among them:

  • Does your governing body look like the people you serve?
  • Does the leadership and decision makers reflect the communities they represent?
  • Are the most vulnerable people and places protected?
  • Are capital and water plans designed in a way that encompasses the concerns of disproportionately impacted communities?
  • Are certain communities penalized by rate structures that haven’t adapted to the current water use context in a particular area?
  • Are accountability guidelines, monitoring and evaluation in place to support equitable outcomes?
  • Are there transparent and inclusive processes in place that allow the community real impact in decision-making?

White-Newsome said philanthropy can be a key partner with government, planners and engineers in designing water systems that work for the environment and for all people. Unencumbered by many of the restrictions and realities of the public sector, and not beholden to quarterly returns, philanthropies like The Kresge Foundation are able to take more risks in search of scalable, innovative solutions.

She urged the audience to seek creative solutions to ensure water systems are designed and maintained for the benefit of all its users.

“Asking the tough questions is just a start,” White-Newsome told the group. “But I would hope the incentives for building a more climate resilient water sector are clear. I challenge you to reflect on … how you can keep people at the center and equity at the forefront of the great work you do.”