The wake of the Flint, Michigan water crisis highlights the vulnerability of the people. Not only
did releasing the plentiful flow of dangerous water to an unsuspecting population put their health at risk, it
deprived them of their basic right to human dignity. Flint’s dangerous waters came not from a storm
surge, but right out of the tap. In order to save $5 million, clear and pleasant-tasting water from Lake Huron was exchanged for cloudy, corrosive, foul-smelling water from the Flint River, with its visible contaminates. This was to be a temporary measure until a new pipeline to Lake Huron could be installed. But, from April 2014 to October 2015, the flow of untreated and corrosive water took its toll.
Official test results indicated the water was safe to drink and bathe in, while residents held up small
children covered in rashes—with high levels of lead in their systems—as evidence to the contrary. Finally,
someone believed them when the researchers from Virginia Tech tested and found that the water contained
as much as 5,000 times the amount of lead that is safe to ingest. When General Motors found that the same water corroded the engine parts on its assembly lines, it was afforded an opportunity to switch back. Residents of Flint, 42% of whom live in poverty, could effect no such change on their own behalf.
Wading through the currents of political rhetoric these days, the safety of the shore seems so far away. I
remember, however, the moment when I stuck my toes in with so much hope thinking, “maybe just maybe there is hope for us after all.” During a 2007 democratic primary debate then Senators Hilary Clinton, Joseph Biden, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and several others proffered their ideas about health care, wage inequality, and the criminal justice system. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged our gulf coast two years earlier sending storm surge
right through old levees, right into the neighborhoods of vulnerable New Orleanians, killing approximately 1,577 and leaving many sweltering on rooftops in the aftermath.
On the debate stage, Obama engaged my heart and mind with this simple statement regarding the deafness of
government to the plight of the people in Katrina’s path:
[P]art of the reason that we had such a tragedy was the assumption that everybody could jump in their SUVs, load up with some sparkling water and check into the nearest hotel.
The idea that elected leaders would be proactive in planning and responsive to the vulnerable was refreshing.
The thought that someone could and would see that the disadvantages of the disenfranchised are compounded
because of their disenfranchisement was attractive. A champion for the underserved called us into the deep.
Fast forward to our friends in Flint, and we observe not just deafness to the cries of concerned residents,
but a new low in leadership. There was the decision not to spend $100 a day for three months to prevent lead
from leaching from the pipes into the water. There was the refusal to validate the views of residents—many of
whom are black, many, although not necessarily the same population, live below the poverty line. There was
the slow response of governor Rick Snyder because, as he told CNN, “[t]hese are very technical issues.
But the lead came to my attention in October, end of September, early October of 2015.” And, the governor’s
office slammed area ministers for speaking the truth of the masses to the power in office. One pastor, head
of the Concerned Clergy Of Flint, visibly confronted the government about the lack of progress in dealing
with the water crisis. He seemed to have been denied a government appointment to serve on the Receivership
Transition Advisory Board because of it.
In 2010 the United Nations General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation. Clean drinking water and sanitation are “essential to the realization of all human rights.” Our bodies are approximately
60 percent water. Clean, fresh water is critical to all bodily functions, and ease of access to it promotes
productivity. As a participating state within the UN, the United States, along with many non-governmental
organizations, help fund safe water infrastructure globally. Because populations are dependent upon it for
life, any government that supplies it does so knowing that it holds in its hands critical building block to life.
Helpless, dismissed, powerless. The Flint water crisis is more than a public health issue. It transcends the
political stage. No, this is a failure to recognize the worth and human dignity of one’s neighbors.