Wastewater pollution is ubiquitous, but there are big differences in who is impacted — and how severely. Wastewater pollution, whether marine, freshwater, or terrestrial, disproportionately impacts women and girls, communities of color, and the poorest among us. These inequities are directly tied to inadequate sanitation and the persistent relocating of pollution to communities that lack a voice or are grossly underrepresented in planning, decision-making and problem-solving processes. While much attention has been focused on developing countries, where millions of people lack the most basic sanitation, challenges faced by communities of color in places like the Southern U.S. and parts of Australia have attracted significantly less attention (Carrera & Flowers, 2018; Leker & Gibson, 2018; Yashadhana et al., 2020). The fact is that examples of systemic racism feeding the cycle of poverty through lack of safe sanitation can be found around the world in both developed and developing countries (Winkler & Flowers, 2017). The implications are generational, impeding the ability of people to improve their lives, educate themselves, contribute to their communities, and ultimately, contribute to the health of the planet.
The impact is felt disproportionately by women and girls, because of their unique needs and the roles they play in their families and communities (Kayser et al., 2019). Lack of sanitation leads to girls dropping out of school when they begin menstruating; this leads to missed educational and income opportunities not only as individuals and for their families, but also for their communities. This gender inequality in access to safe sanitation extends to disproportionate impacts of wastewater pollution. When family members exposed to wastewater pollution get sick, women and girls are more likely to be the ones to stay home to care for them, again missing out on opportunities. By addressing gender equity in access to safe water and sanitation, we increase the ability of women to contribute to solutions in their communities. In fact, Project Drawdown, an effort to identify the top 100 climate solutions, has found that empowering women and educating girls can make the biggest contribution to drawing down greenhouse gas emissions. Addressing these inequities is not only the right thing to do for women and girls, but also the smart thing to do to help us address a range of environmental and social challenges.