Clean Water for All
Like many others, I’ve been horrified by the stories coming out of Flint, where the population of a city, disproportionately poor, disproportionately black, has been poisoned by lead in the tap water. While there has been plenty of finger pointing, it seems the culpability runs from the municipal government in Flint, to the undemocratic emergency manager, to the governor, to a number of state and federal agencies that knew about what was going on and failed to sound the alarm. The people of Flint noticed the water looked, smelled and tasted bad, and they complained. But lacking much in the way of power their concerns were largely brushed off. They also lacked the money to do something like GM, which switched its water supply when it noticed that the city water was corroding its parts. Now those that can show proper identification (i.e. not undocumented people) and who speak English are able to access bottled water, but the damage done may be irreparable. And no doubt continued pressure will be required to keep that water coming.
Ostensibly, the switch in the water source was due to a single reasons–to save money. According to some reports, that was a lie. Surely that matters, but even more surely, saving money shouldn’t be a reason for doing something that puts so many people at risk.
Of course, its hard to think of the Flint situation and not notice the similarities to the situation in Detroit, where skyrocketing water bills were used by authorities to engage in mass shutoffs, again of a population that is disproportionately poor, disproportionately black, in part to make the water authority more appealing to private investors. The same authorities were making no effort to go after corporate delinquents.
Then there was West Virginia last year, where a toxic spill of chemicals used in the coal industry contaminated the water, and left hundreds of West Virginians, mostly rural, predominately white, disproportionately poor, without safe water for some time. There lax environmental and industrial regulation, and corporation that was trying to cut corners, was to blame.
The threat to clean water for a large swath of the country has been one of the reasons why a fairly unconventional coalition of people in the middle of the continent has come together to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. The threat of fracking to clean water has been a constant theme as well.
And then there is the more everyday ways the clean water is denied. Robert L. Reece recently wrote eloquently of his own experiences growing up in the small, predominately black town of Leland, MS, without “‘the White man’s water.’ That was the kind that seemed safe and tasty enough to drink.” (Note that this was one of the first things tackled by Mayor Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, MS, spearheading the a referendum to enact of a one cent sales tax to upgrade the infrastructure).
Access to clean water has been a flash point around the world as well. It is guaranteed in the constitution of South Africa, yet that right is routinely violated. It has been used by anti-austerity and left parties in places like Ireland to garner support, and direct action has been used to block shutoffs and turn the water back on. Climate change will make this problem far worse.
This whole thing is patently ridiculous. Clean water may be the most basic human need imaginable. There is no justification for denying people clean water, or putting this at risk. There is no principle that trumps everyone’s right to it.
One thing that frustrates me about how political discussions go is that what’s at stake is often obscured. “Austerity” is one of those terms often thrown around, but in practice it means that basic human needs are sacrificed in the name of deficits (lower taxes) or debt (payments to bankers). It’s easier to oppose incontestable propositions when those propositions are rarely aired. Basic human needs should be guaranteed for everyone, and not just those that can pay. (I’d ensure a certain amount of water was available to every household without charge and charge for use beyond that, making it free to drink, cook and bathe but not to water your lawn.)
Demand clean water for all.