Dana Bourland
Illustration: Lauren Nassef | Art Direction: Jelena Schulz

Dana Bourland is vice president of the environment program at the JPB Foundation, a philanthropic organization that focuses on enhancing the quality of life in the United States through pioneering medical research, creating opportunities for people in poverty and enriching our environment. As such, she understands how water—or a lack thereof—factors into every facet of our natural and built environment.

Every community in America has a relationship with water that is either life-enriching or life-depleting. We need to collaborate at all levels, across all professions, to ensure water systems are life-enriching. We will be unable to advance the quality of life in this country unless we do.

Water is an essential community resource and access to clean water is a basic human right. Through my work at the JPB Foundation, we approach protecting this human right as we do others, such as access to nature and access to affordable housing: by starting where people live.

A home that conserves water and energy can save lives and improve the planet. We know people die when they cannot heat or cool their homes adequately. Disproportionately, this affects people with low incomes and in particular low-income African-Americans. High utility bills from underperforming housing conditions can put households at risk for eviction.

And because we face growing housing insecurity—with 11.2 million households facing extreme housing unaffordability— there is a nationwide shortage of 7.4 million rental homes. This means that low-income people are moving into naturally occurring affordable housing that is in remote locations, deteriorating, inefficient, and unhealthy. It is a ripe moment for philanthropy, housing practitioners, building professionals, and designers to come together in an even bigger way than is happening today.

I often give out blue marbles in meetings. I bought them in support of the Blue Marbles Project, which promotes connecting people to water and raising awareness about the importance of protecting our water sources and the oceans. Water is a great connector. And while the focus has generally been on energy and not water, this is changing—especially in light of last month’s disasters.

We must exponentially increase our intention to protect our basic human right to clean water, and prepare our communities to live with water as it rises around our shores and pours down on our streets. Our waterways should be swimmable and enjoyable. Being in and on the water is restorative; it improves our mental, physical, and spiritual health. We depend on the ocean with every other breath we take. Water is a lifeline; we must stop taking it for granted.

One lesson here is that it pays to think holistically. We need to understand how all our actions are interrelated and have impacts across the essential resources that communities and people need to thrive. As John Muir is quoted as having written: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”—As told to Steve Cimino

Read more of our interviews with experts on water.