Flint residents don’t need water bottles, they need democracy
I’ve been unimpressed with the recent coverage of the Flint water crisis. The overall message is that there’s been a “run of bad luck” but that certain generous people and corporations are coming to the rescue. If you believe the reports, we should be grateful for all the water bottles being flown in from Nestle and Walmart, and we should rest assured that water filters are being handed out and installed, even though they are inadequate.
In many of the articles on Flint, the switch from Detroit to the Flint River is mentioned, as is the concept of water as a human right, but not much more is explained. Specifically, there are two important questions left unanswered. First, how did this happen? And second, where else is it going to happen?
When you think about how Flint residents got into this situation, it’s critical to remember it was directly caused by a suspension in democracy. It was an emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder that made the switch to the Flint River as a water source. I’ve talked a bit about which municipalities get their democratic powers taken away; turns out that process often involves poor people of color. The entire point of emergency management is to remove accountability from the actors who put people’s lives in danger under the guise of saving money. Rick Snyder is, unbelievably, still in office.
Speaking of money, what’s the larger story here? It’s that, as a country, we can’t seem to pony up the resources to keep up our infrastructure, especially when it comes to water. A 2012 report by USA Today found that water prices had doubled in a quarter of the cities surveyed since 2000. This is because federal funding for water and waste systems have been reduced by 80% since 1977. And that would make sense if our water infrastructure were robust, but it’s not. In fact it’s in crisis, and we’d need $1 trillion to update it. The result is widespread crappy water, expensive water, and privatized water system disasters. We just let it rot at the local level, in other words, and deal with it – or not – in the most expensive ways, when it’s already an urgent situation.
Guess where the pipes are the oldest and most decrepit? You guessed it, where poor people live. When we ignore infrastructure we are inviting yet another punitive tax on the poor, and as it happens, a life-long debilitating level of lead poisoning.
So, let’s answer the second question: where else is this going to happen? The answer is pretty much everywhere unless we get our priorities straight. And I’m not talking about water bottles.