Access to clean, fresh water is a fundamental human right, at least according to a 2010 United Nations declaration. Yet that’s not the end of the story — the resolution isn’t actually an enforceable mandate, and governments only agreed to make an effort to provide safe drinking water.
Further, dozens of countries abstained from the UN vote to recognize access to water as a human right, including the United States, a significant oversight in a country that touts itself as the world’s greatest.
In many communities across America, the idea of water as a fundamental right is laughable. The residents of Flint, Michigan, are famously aware of how the right to drinking water access can be blocked, ignored, and worse. Flint’s water supply has been under scrutiny since the spring of 2014, when its source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Subsequently, lead and various forms of bacteria contaminated the public water supply throughout Flint.
Flint residents were provided rations of bottled water and otherwise encouraged to purify their tap water. Generally speaking, water is supposed to be filtered by the public utility company that supplies it, as well as via a point-of-entry filtration system installed where water lines enter your home. As long as a filtration system is carbon-based, it can typically remove most lead and other contaminants from the water supply.
Unfortunately, the lead levels in Flint’s water are so high that filtration isn’t an effective measure. And five years later, the city’s water quality issue persists: Flint’s city-wide water purification advisory remains in place as of the tail end of 2019. Contaminated water poses numerous health risks and can even be fatal, meaning that poor water quality is concerning on both an environmental and a humanitarian level.
Water Safety: A National Concern
The Flint water crisis notwithstanding, water conservation topics tend to get much more attention than quality or safety. Perhaps that’s because so many Americans take fresh water access for granted. Yet with a national infrastructure of 156,000 public water systems and more than 700,000 miles of pipes to deliver it, periodic quality problems should be expected.
Flint’s persistent water quality problems have attracted national attention, but the city of 96,000 is far from alone in the realm of unsafe drinking water. Business Insider reports that while rural areas are more susceptible to contaminated water supplies, a number of cities actively pump unsafe drinking water through aging pipes.
For example, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Washington DC have struggled with lead contamination over the years. What’s more, residents of those cities may not even be aware of the dangers lurking in their tap water. And lead is only the beginning in the realm of potentially deadly water contaminants.
When Drinking Water is Compromised
While lead gets the bulk of the negative press when it comes to water safety, myriad other threats also exist. For instance, Flint’s drinking water was contaminated by lead, but the damaged pipes also effectively turned into a bacteria breeding ground. One bacteria found in the city’s water supply, legionella, causes a severe, atypical form of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease.
Officially, 12 Flint residents died from Legionnaires’ disease between 2014-2015. Yet more recent data indicates that the city’s legionella death toll is actually much higher: As many as 115 pneumonia deaths during that time period were likely caused by legionella.
But legionella was not alone in tormenting local residents: several different strains of the shigella bacteria were also found in Flint’s water supply, which is a bacteria that can cause a serious gastrointestinal infection known as shigellosis. The shigellosis infection is typically treated with antibiotics, and is normally easily prevented by proper hygiene and hand-washing.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy for Flint residents, or those in any area with a contaminated water supply, to practice hygienic hand-washing. Thus, shigellosis cases in Flint are still on the rise, and public health officials continue to look for viable solutions.
Fighting for Fresh Water Access, in Flint and Beyond
Sometimes, national platforms are used to bring social and environmental issues to light, and the Flint water crisis is no exception. The city’s poor water quality has gotten its fair share of national news coverage, but the problem has yet to be solved.
And years later, Michigan residents refuse to allow the water crisis to fade into obscurity. At the 2018 Miss America pageant, Miss Michigan Emily Sioma eschewed tradition and introduced herself thusly: “From a state with 84 percent of the U.S. fresh water, but none for its residents to drink, I’m Miss Michigan Emily Sioma.”
Sioma, who grew up in Grass Lake, less than 80 miles south of Flint, was subsequently hailed as a water rights champion. Her comment went viral, even making national headlines, yet nothing came from her noble efforts. But Sioma isn’t the only Michigan resident who has tried to put a national spotlight on Flint’s tainted water, nor the only one who has seen little reward for her efforts.
Mari Copeny is another outspoken advocate for the citizens of Flint, as well as other communities facing water crises. Copeny, who once held the title of “Little Miss Flint,” is only 11 years old and has actively championed for clean water in Flint since the age of 8. In September, Copeny told Today that she doesn’t want Flint to be forgotten, even though the city’s water crisis is no longer front-page news.
The citizens of Flint, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and beyond deserve access to clean water that’s safe to drink. As long as the nation’s water supply infrastructure remains poor, contamination remains inevitable. Activists must continue to fight for clean water access and, as Copeny reminds us, keep Flint in the forefront of our minds as an example of how bad it can get, even in America.