Environmental Justice and Equity: Tools for Assuring a Healthy Environment for Residents East of the Anacostia River

By: Chandarprabha Sharma, Policy Innovator

A 2014 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that by the year 2045, Washington D.C. would lead the East Coast in number of tidal floods per year: it projects nearly 400 floods each year. Unlike humans, nature may not discriminate, however the impacts of climate change and environmental disasters tend to be worst for the people who are already socially and economically disadvantaged.

While civil society actors and the government works for development in Anacostia, the economic, socio-political and demographic challenges must also be understood from the lens of Environmental Justice. Climate related disasters would serve to aggravate existing inequalities in Anacostia. Thus, actors dedicated to the development of Anacostia will find Environmental Justice to be a great ally as we address inequality in the region.

Source: Anacostia Waterfront Trust

Source: Anacostia Waterfront Trust

To prepare against the threats of climate related disasters, we must look at disaster management from the lens of Environmental Justice. This includes mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Mitigation: Mitigation involves land use planning and urban development policy. As developers turn toward more aggressive development of land and property East of the River, an emphasis on Environmental Justice would help ensure that the poorer residents are not pushed out to the more environmentally sensitive, degraded or flood prone areas. Green infrastructure solutions would help mitigate flood impacts and the parkland in Anacostia must be leveraged for this.

Preparedness: According to a National Capital Planning Commission report in 2008, the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation (AWC) had proposed stringent requirements for stormwater management. However, the report noted that, since AWC was absorbed into the District Office of Planning, the Federal government’s stance on the more stringent guidelines has not yet been determined. Leveraging Environmental Justice principles for policy action would ensure that the government does not neglect the District’s poorest residents in flood preparedness, policies and resources.

Response: The ethos of Environmental Justice strives to ensure that no section of the society must be systematically ignored in response measures. In 2005, New Orleans grappled with the devastating impacts of Hurricane Katrina. Various studies have shown that evacuation measures depended entirely on personal transport. 60% of poor African-American households in New Orleans did not have a personal vehicle and could not be evacuated immediately. It is imperative that we learn from such lessons and that they result in better disaster response policies for communities adjacent to the river, particularly those east of the Anacostia River.

Recovery: We must understand and acknowledge the disproportionately devastating impacts of climate related disasters on Anacostia’s poor residents. Failing to do so may lead to systematic injustice toward Ward 7 and 8 residents in decision-making and resource allocation for recovery after a natural disaster.

On 19th January 2016, we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in civil rights, but his dream of social justice remains incomplete, especially in Anacostia. In his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in Oslo, Dr. King hoped that “the lion and lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid”. 

Environmental Justice is a strong tool to ensure the same for residents living east of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. and in similarly vulnerable communities throughout the country, indeed, the world.