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On Flint, water, and environmental justice

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Patricia Quintero Estades

If you’re like me, you don’t worry about how you’ll get your next glass of water to drink or your next shower. In most developed nations, clean and safe water is something we often take for granted. When we think of conserving water we most often worry about reducing our utility bills more than the thought that water is a precious resource and we could run out of it.

However, there eventually come circumstances which force us to think about water—the crisis in Flint, Michigan, being the clearest and most recent example.


Contaminated Water by Yan Garza/Detroit Free Press

In Puerto Rico, where I am from, that moment came last summer when water rationing policies due to decreasing levels of rainfall, left metropolitan area residents without running water for days at a time. But then the rain came, the rationing stopped, and now it’s back to business as usual.  We’ve stopped thinking and talking about water for the time being.

Water is a much more prevalent issue in California, my current residence, which is in its fourth year of severe drought. Water seems to be more present in the policy picture here precisely because there are communities that are consistently struggling to access potable water due to the drought and depleting resources. Sadly, it seems that it takes crises to get us to talk about water and how to manage it.

However, water is something that should always be in the forefront of our public discourse. We should always be looking for ways to better manage and conserve the most basic and essential resource that human beings need. As this CityLab article suggests, maybe the problems we have managing water stem from treating it as a commodity rather than a necessity.

water is something that should always be in the forefront of our public discourse

All of the advances and commodities that we enjoy as developed countries seem trivial when we fail to provide safe and clean water to all. If we should try to get anything right in terms of governance and policy, shouldn’t it be water management? Surely this is an area we ought to prioritize.

The choice to switch to a different source of water in Flint was a decision meant to cut costs for the city, which is riddled in debt. It was a financial consideration, but the aftermath of that decision shows the importance prioritizing water in policy-making—which ultimately means prioritizing health and safety. And Flint is just one case.

The events in Flint have brought attention to the fact that problems of water pollution and decaying water infrastructure are happening in communities across the U.S. It has also sparked a very necessary conversation regarding race and economic status, as many national news and media outlets have linked the crisis in Flint to a long history of environmental injustice in the U.S.


Broad Ave. Bridge over Flint River

While the negligent policy of switching the water source for the city may have been driven by financial interests and not by explicit racial discrimination, it is dangerous to ignore the role that income and race play in situations such as this one. The environmental justice movement stems from the finding that racial and ethnic minorities and low-income populations are dis-proportionally affected by environmental hazards in the U.S. For that reason, we can’t ignore the fact that Flint’s proportion of black and low-income residents is significantly higher compared to the state of Michigan overall.

Low-income and minority communities often don’t have the political clout to influence policy decisions in their own neighborhoods and stop harmful policies such as this one. And therein lies the biggest problem. The citizens of Flint spoke out, but they were not heard. On the contrary, time and again their worries and complaints were dismissed. A bad policy decision driven by financial worries would have been just that—if it had been addressed appropriately and in a timely manner. It wasn’t.

It took a year, and outside actors to step in, for the complaints of Flint’s residents to be acknowledged, for the government to take action, and for the rest of the nation to become aware of what was happening. Dismissing community input in Flint was likely the biggest failure on the part of state and local government.

Switching the water source might have been about saving money for a city on the brink of bankruptcy, but it stopped being about money when city and state officials blatantly ignored citizens’ worries and compromised transparency in the implementation of a policy. At that point, it became about power.

In the case of already vulnerable communities, policy making and transparecy becomes about justice. Transparency is absolutely necessary when the policy in question has the potential of having such tragic consequences.

This is why it is so important to keep the conversations of environmental justice going. Flint has shown us that even though we have been aware of environmental injustices for decades, so many issues have yet to be properly addressed.  Flint has illuminated that the problem goes beyond the locations of landfills and power plants, it has to do with more than air pollution. These problems infiltrate the very water we drink.

Flint has opened up the conversation about water safety, management, and resiliency. Let’s keep that conversation going.

Bedrosian Center