In 2012 the veil from my eyes was lifted and I realized my privilege as someone who lived in NYC, a city that boasts having some of the cleanest water in the world on tap. I spent a month volunteering in Ecuador outside of Quito and stayed with a host family during this period. As an English as a second language (ESL) teacher, I woke up bright and early, matching the morning routine to my host mother, but our routines diverged with one particular action: she had huge vats of water boiling on the stove for the household to use for the day ahead.
It was this experience that revealed one of the many public health issues that people face in this world. Over 2 billion people in the world do not have reliable access to clean water and sanitation services, a statistic that is exacerbated with the global climate crisis.
This issue is intersectional and disproportionately affects girls and women. They are traditionally the household members responsible for fetching water, and face numerous physical and psychosocial stressors related to water and sanitation, including but not limited to safety when accessing the restroom and taking care of their menstrual hygiene.
Public health plays a significant role in my climate story; my volunteer experience in Ecuador propelled me into studying public health. It was through my experiences working abroad that I saw other examples of how the consequences of inadequate infrastructure and climate action could exacerbate the climate crisis:
The lack of free, accessible sanitation services in municipalities force residents to incinerate their trash on their properties, contributing to air pollution and harming their own health.
Natural disasters occur more frequently and with increasing strength, and tear through neighborhoods and destroy homes. Low-income community members are hit the hardest, and must resort to creating makeshift roofs using tarps and walls using metal sheets in anticipation of the next storms.
Rainy seasons extend for longer periods of time, disrupting schedules and routines across many instances. Workers in agriculture must adapt to erratic weather and anticipate impacts to their yields, and people working in office settings barricade their entry points in hopes that their buildings do not get flooded, among other examples.
Right here in NYC, I see the intersection between public health and the climate crisis through the pandemic. The health effects of air pollution combined with contracting COVID-19 can be fatal, disproportionately affecting people living in low-income neighborhoods and Black and Brown communities, who already face the brunt of environmental racism and systemic injustice.
While these examples may paint something bleak, I find hope in knowing there are others out there who are committed to tackling the climate crisis. As a young person, a woman, an Asian American, a feminist, I am emboldened by my peers who share the same ambition and look forward to our collaboration in solving the biggest challenge of our lifetime.