A nationwide US moratorium on water shutoffs could have saved more than 9,000 lives and prevented nearly half a million COVID infections in the US, according to a study by Cornell University in collaboration with advocacy NGO Food & Water Watch.
The study analysed infection and death rates across US states with varying policies on shutting off water supplies for non-payment of bills and found that a moratorium on water shutoffs was associated with a reduced daily infection growth rate by 0.235 percent, and daily death growth rate by 0.135 percent.
The authors argue: “These small reductions in the daily growth rates were significant and had a sizeable impact on the cumulative case and death numbers.” The study’s modelling also found that “comprehensive coverage of the moratorium was significantly associated with an even lower infection and death growth rate”.
A total of 41 states did not have full coverage of a moratorium during the period from 17 April to 31 December 2020.
The March 2021 report also points to the disproportionate exposure to the risk of water shutoffs among low-income populations as well as Black and Indigenous people of color and Latinx communities.
It calls on the Biden administration to “champion legislative solutions to cancel the water debt accrued during the pandemic and fully fund our public water infrastructure to provide long-term relief into the future”.
A lack of federal funding has placed a heavy financial burden on local ratepayers, with unaffordable water bills becoming a growing problem in many areas. “Federal funding for water and sewer systems fell by 77 Percent in real dollars from its peak in 1977 to 2017,” says the report, pointing out that the water infrastructure is aging and in need of replacement.
In a typical year, such as 2016, an estimated 15 million people experience water shutoffs for non-payment. Definitive figures on total shutoffs during the study period are not included in the report. However, it cites limited data from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, which says that around 100,000 people in the state were protected from losing their water because of state-issued moratoria, continuing: “California found that 1.6 million households (one in eight households) were behind on their water bills, owing more than $1 billion as of January 2021.”