Greed 1, Flint 0

Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals is Clean Water and Sanitation.  One of its targets is universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.  With the number of celebrities and companies donating bottled water to Flint, Michigan over the last month and a half, I would suggest that America is currently failing.

Flint is a city of 102,000 people, and is less than 70 miles from the banks of Lake Huron, the third largest fresh water lake on earth.  Despite this, human greed and arrogance have conspired so that every resident of Flint has been affected by lead poisoning from their water supply over the last two years.

Until April 2014, Flint got its water from Lake Huron, treated in Detroit by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and sold on as clean water to the city through a single pipeline.  In case of problems with that pipe, the city maintained its own former water treatment works as a back-up, capable of supplying the city with water taken from the River Flint and treated in Flint.  It was a back-up that had never been called into action.  In March 2013, Flint City Council voted to switch its water supply from DWSD to a new pipeline, run by the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), which would be completed in late 2016, and would also take raw water from Lake Huron.  The aim of the switch to KWA was to increase water security and reduce prices.

DWSD were not happy.  They tried to force the state government to prevent the city from moving its water supply to KWA and when this tactic did not succeed, they gave a year’s notice on the contract to supply Flint’s water in April 2013.  Rather than negotiate to continue supply until 2016, Flint’s city council decided that they would use their back-up supply in the interim.

As soon as the water supply was changed over in April 2014, there were complaints from residents.  Many switched to bottled water.  With 40 % of the city’s population living under the poverty line, most could not afford to.

In October 2014, General Motors was granted an exception from the new Flint River water supply and was once again supplied from Lake Huron.  Why?  The new water source was corroding car parts in the metal washing process.  None of the officials seemed to mind that the residents of Flint were drinking that same water.

It took until February 2015 for independent reports to surface showing that the water taken from the River Flint was sufficiently corrosive that it was stripping away the protective mineral build-up inside some of the city’s pipes.  The metal pipes were leaching iron, and more importantly, lead into the drinking water supply.  This stripping and leaching could have been prevented if the right chemicals were added to the water during treatment, chemicals that cost approximately $100 a day.

It was not until October 2015, 18 months after the change in water supply, that the authorities admitted there was a problem and switched supply back to DWSD.  But the damage had already been done.  The residents of Flint were already suffering from lead poisoning and despite chemicals being added back into the water to start to replace the protective mineral build-up in the pipes, that build-up will take time.  Meanwhile, the people of Flint are still left with the unenviable choice between poisoned tap water or the bottled water being handed out at water stations across the city.

The problems that Flint faces have come about because of cost-saving measures and the arrogance of the politicians and organisations involved who ignored the warning signs and the evidence provided to them by residents of the city.  This is not the first time that American communities have fought against their leaders and large corporations over access to water.  If we are to have any hope of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, we will have to put the good of communities ahead of both profit and ego.  But maybe hoping that the Land of the American Dream, where money is king, would lead that charge is asking too much.

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