‘Waste’ Activist Fights Sanitation Crisis Affecting the Rural Poor in the U.S.


Image from Wikimedia Commons

Nicole Welle | November 26, 2020

Activist and author Catherine Coleman Flowers’ work spurred a study in 2017 that revealed environmental and sanitation problems in rural America.

The 2017 study discovered that more than one in three people in Lowndes County, a rural county in Alabama, had tested positive for hookworm. This parasite was previously thought to have been eradicated in the United States because it usually only infects people in areas without access to proper waste management and sanitation, but this study revealed that it is not an issue confined to “developing” countries. The large number of infections in rural America revealed significant gaps in access to basic sanitation and led activists to look further into the cause of the issue, according to an Iowa Public Radio article.

When looking at rural areas in Alabama, Flowers found that many families lacked access to an on-site septic system and were sometimes facing fines and jail time when they could not afford to have one installed. Lowndes County has dense clay soils and a high water table, so families living there need access to a special, more expensive septic system that can cost around $28,000. Most families, both poor and middle-class, do not have the resources to have one installed and are forced to deal with improper sanitation and legal action.

The current septic system technology was designed before climate change caused sea levels and water tables to rapidly rise and changed rainfall patterns. Flowers says that the next steps toward solving the sanitation problem in Lowndes County and elsewhere will require people to acknowledge climate change and work towards developing new, more affordable technologies that will account for rising sea levels.

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