January of 2016, Flint, Michigan shocked the world. For 60 years, the U.S. had been known as a nation devoid of struggles with access to common resources like clean water, but within weeks Flint proved that to be false. The emphasis of the Clean Water Crisis has often centered upon the struggles that developing nations have had in promoting this resource to their citizens. Yet all the while, circumstances like those of Flint have gone unnoticed because the Clean Water Crisis has often emphasized looking beyond America for issues with water access. Identifying these shortcomings isn’t intended to serve as a slight to the work done to promote water access abroad, but instead is a way to highlight the areas for continued improvement and innovation within this industry. The signs indicating a clean water crisis were abundant in Flint, but people refused to look at them, because the dominant narrative regarding the Global Clean Water Crisis directed their attention elsewhere.
The circumstances leading to Flint’s clean water crisis mirror the story described in the film and novel, The Big Short. The story describes that in the time leading to the global economic recession of 2008, a few wall street executives and hedge fund managers began to look beyond the dominant narrative spread about the American economy’s strength. In accomplishing this, they identified what they thought to be obvious flaws in the structure of our economy, which then resulted in a major recession. In much the same way, Flint and communities in similarly depressed economic states across the U.S., have shown distinct signs of decline that would precipitate the circumstances leading to Clean Water Crises.
Flint was once a thriving city in the 1970s’, built on the back of GM’s presence in the area, with GM employing nearly 40% of the city’s population, and supporting almost half of the region’s economy. However, in the 1980s’, GM began to consolidate its business near its competitors in Detroit, resulting in divestments from its factories in Flint that crippled the area’s economy with thousands of jobs being cut. With few similar opportunities for employment available, many were left unemployed and impoverished. Flint has since steadily deteriorated into its current depressed state, with 41.5% of residents living under the poverty line, and 25% living on salaries of less than $15,000 a year.1 These circumstances have left Flint desperate to save money wherever it could. So when Flint’s city council discovered it could save $200 million over 25 years if it switched its primary water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, to the Karegnondi Water Authority, they took the opportunity to overhaul the city’s water infrastructure. Until a new pipeline was built, Flint relied on using pipes from the 1960s’ to the Flint river to access water. No tests were conducted on whether the water of the Flint river would cause corrosion within outdated pipes, instead officials thought it better to “wait and see” what impact the water would have.2 The results of this have been well documented in the last year. The water from the Flint river indeed caused corrosion in the outdated water pipes the city chose to use, and a significant portion of the city was left with contaminated water coming from their pipes. Had these facts been better known beforehand, many would certainly be concerned that Flint was exposing itself to potentially crippling harm. However the question remains, why weren’t the circumstances that precipitated Flint’s water crisis better known?
Unfortunately, Flint isn’t alone in seeing its struggles be unnoticed by most. Other communities in America including areas outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Huntsville, Alabama, Fresno, California, and many more have dealt with unique issues in accessing clean water. The lack of attention these regions receive has been attributed to the racial dynamics of the areas. Flint, for example, is one of the few cities in the country with a majority African-American population, and the other regions noted above are areas with significant portions of their population from multiethnic backgrounds. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) put it best when discussing with the Huffington Post, “‘There’s a philosophy of government that has been writing these places off — places like Flint get written off...And, to me, even though those people making those decisions might not see it this way, it’s hard for me to accept the fact that race is not the most significant factor.’” Kildee isn’t alone in promoting this sentiment, as many other legislators, including the likes of Hillary Clinton have expressed similar concerns.3
The reality of injustice towards racial minorities has taken so long to come to light, and it’s exposing a broad system of injustice that has gone unnoticed for so long. When the “Black Lives Matter” movement gained momentum and raised awareness for the realities of police brutality in America, they weren’t highlighting a new epidemic, but were promoting awareness of a tragic reality that has gone unnoticed by media for so long. Similarly, Flint’s clean water crisis isn’t a new reality, as communities of color have historically been displaced to areas with poor environmental conditions and regulations, and have had their struggles with clean water access be forgotten and undocumented.3 The systems of injustice in the U.S. take on many forms, there may be other conditions we are still unaware of that plague communities of color, and it requires that we bring attention to them in order to work towards discovering their solutions.
As more is revealed about the poor circumstances of water access in communities like Flint, we will begin to unearth more information about the reality that other communities in similar economic positions are experiencing. However, there is a trend of disparities in attention and circumstance that has made this issue one that stretches beyond Flint. There is a pattern of abuse and neglect historically, a system of injustice that identifies how and why communities like Flint are written off by politicians. Exploring this system could provide the necessary context for realizing the reality of the Clean water crisis in America. Flint’s water crisis was one that could’ve been easily prevented, and it’s possible that other communities in the U.S. with similar economic and racial dynamics could find themselves in similarly preventable situations that could result in unfortunate crises. Exploring the cases of communities like Flint is a large part of what PWAP hopes to be a greater collective effort to work towards alleviating issues with pure water access domestically, while we continue to expand our work abroad.