The case of poisoned water in faraway Flint in US was made famous by Erin Brockovich, a movie starring Julia Roberts. It was a case of environmental racism. As was the Bhopal gas tragedy in India, involving Union Carbide. Numerous such instances are found all over the world and environmental pressure groups are trying their best to force governments, especially the Global North, to take equitable measures.
President Joe Biden had once promised that he would be taking on the responsibility of legally addressing the issues faced by minority communities as they bear a disproportionate burden of climate change. But such a promise may be difficult to keep as the path is riddled with possible legal challenges from those opposed to the measures.
“We are trying to set up a framework and a tool that will survive, and one that still connects to what the on-the-ground impacts are that people are experiencing,” said Brenda Mallory, Chairwoman of the White House Council of Environmental Quality. “I feel that we can do that based on race-neutral criteria.”
What is environmental racism?
Environmental racism refers to the fact that many minority communities, especially in the US, but also across other areas of the globe, face disproportionate risk from climate change. This is often due to the fact that these communities are located in more hazard-prone areas and often receive little support to combat these issues due to their often lower socio-economic standing.
The term, ‘environmental racism,’ was coined by the African American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis, who defined it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements.”
What form does it take?
Environmental racism can take various shapes. One of the most common visualisations of environmental racism is the presence of incredibly polluting industries being located near minority communities.
These industries can include coal-fired power stations, quarries, mines, smelters, and other large heavily-polluting structures. These structures not only contaminate the local air but often due to lax regulations can result in groundwater contamination and an even higher risk of other dangerous complications.
The infamous Union Carbide disaster of 1984 in Bhopal is an example of this. While the invisible deadly gas spread throughout the city, the poor who “lived in hutments or shanties” suffered disproportionately due to their lack of access to vehicles and well-sealed houses, wrote Thomas Titus for Hindustan Times.
Other projects like the construction of hydroelectric projects that often hurt tribal communities and those living in rural areas the hardest can also be seen under the lens of environmental racism.
Outside India, the situation in Flint, Michigan -- made famous by Julia Roberts-starrer Erin Brockovich -- is often held up as a case of environmental racism. The over 80,000 residents of Flint, the majority of whom belonged to Black communities, were subjected to drinking contaminated tap water that contained a high amount of lead and other contaminants such as E.coli, which can cause diseases like cholecystitis, bacteremia, cholangitis, urinary tract infection (UTI), and traveller's diarrhoea.
The poor sanitation and water availability to many First Nation communities in Canada is also a similar case, where environmental racism takes the form of government apathy, poor funding and government policies.
But this is not a problem that is constrained to just a few geographical locations in the world but a truly global issue. With environmental activists and citizens increasing the pressure on governments to take truly equitable measures, it is hoped that some measures and initiatives would relieve the damages suffered by certain sections of the population, and also help societies prepare against the risks of climate change and other environmental threats.