Whenever we hear about disease outbreaks, unsanitary living conditions, and water shortages, we tend to think of third world countries, where sanitation is often inadequate and infrastructure is insufficient, if not completely non-existent. We’re used to getting reports about water scarcity in remote locations all throughout the world, and even the increasing threat of water conflicts have entered our conversations on climate change and speculations about geopolitical problems that are emerging in our present era. As insurmountable as international water shortages and pollution issues may seem to those of us who are privileged to live in the first world, it really puts things into perspective when we begin to experience our own water issues.
One such occurrence that has been getting plenty of media coverage as of late is one involving the city of Flint, Michigan and the incompetent leadership of our unfortunate state. As the story of this situation unfolds, it’s becoming quite clear that not only could this situation have been avoided with a little foresight, but it also could have been fixed more promptly if there hadn’t been so much effort to minimize and even conceal the situation by those who have been involved and are in the position to act decisively. Most recently, Governor Rick Snyder has called upon federal resources to help manage the debacle, and many are now calling for his resignation in the midst of all of this.
Flint is not the only Michigan city to experience water supply issues in recent years. Many will remember the problems Detroit had when the city started shutting off water to residents there back in 2014. It even got to the point where United Nations representatives were sent in to investigate, and they declared such action to be a violation of human rights.
“‘Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,’ the experts said.
‘Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,’ said Catarina de Albuquerque, the expert on the human right to water and sanitation.”
Now after about a year and half since Flint residents first started noticing something really wasn’t right with their water, the same thing is now happening to them. Only in this case, the water service the people of Flint were being billed for was poisoned with lead and other contaminants. Adding insult to injury, water customers in Flint are now receiving shut off notices for not paying for the toxic water they’ve been unable to use for so long.
Back in 2014, the city of Flint decided to stop getting their water supply from the city of Detroit and began obtaining water from the polluted and corrosive Flint River. This was supposed to be a temporary move, while the city built infrastructure to connect to another supplier called Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), in order to save money. However, not too long after hooking up to the Flint River, area residents began complaining about the quality of water and some began showing signs of lead poisoning. According to an article from late 2015 published by the Detroit Free Press:
“Lead, which can cause permanent brain damage in children, leached into the drinking water. Tests showed lead content well in excess of acceptable levels of 15 parts per billion. Other tests showed the number of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels— 5 micrograms per deciliter or more — jumped from 2.1% in the 20 months prior to Sept. 15, 2013, to 4% between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15 this year. Certain ZIP codes showed even higher jumps in the elevated levels, from 2.5% of the children tested to 6.3%.
After a public outcry, Snyder and the Legislature approved partial funding for Flint to reconnect to DWSD while it awaits the completion of the KWA. That reconnection to Detroit-supplied water happened Oct. 16.”
The Snyder administration finally decided to take some action more recently, now that public outcry has necessitated it. After months and months of complaints from Flint residents, court actions, and expert opinions calling for something to be done, a public health emergency was finally declared in early October of 2015, just a couple of weeks before their water supply was switched back to the Detroit system. Now the situation has gotten so bad that Governor Snyder has requested support from the Federal government and has authorized the National Guard to help distribute water filtration units and clean, bottled water to Flint residents.
This whole unfortunate situation is one that almost seems stranger than fiction. How is it possible that a municipality such as Flint could make so many short-sighted decisions that put so many of its citizens at risk? What ever happened to accountability and representative democracy among our local leaders and state representatives? From the way this whole story continues to unfold, it seems as though many were willfully ignorant in this calamity, and now the citizens of the city of Flint, and namely the children who live, are paying the price for this malfeasance.