Water is a precious natural resource that humans cannot live without. We need it to drink, shower, cook food, etc. Alarmingly, clean water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource. It was stated in 2006 by the World Health Organization that only 59% of the world’s population has access to adequate water sanitation systems. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, dirty water is the world’s biggest health risk. Until the past few years, most U.S. citizens believed water issues to be more prevalent in developing parts of the world, such as Africa and India (http://www.nrdc.org/water/). In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, only 16% of people have access to drinking water. For decades, many organizations have campaigned to raise money for wells in Africa and to promote clean water access in these rural areas (https://thewaterproject.org/water-in-crisis-rural-urban-africa).
Ramchandra Guha states that one third of India’s land area has been classed under unproductive wasteland (Guha 298). There is a shortage of safe drinking water because of the exploitation of groundwater, which has caused a drop in the water table. These shortages can also be correlated with the abuse of the environment in India. The issue of shortages is especially potent in small villages. In these areas, poor people are against poor people as they fight for land. The “Indian Environment Movement” is a term that is used to describe conflicts and struggles of the local Indian people.
Water Contamination in the U.S.
The recent crisis in Flint, Michigan has made water contamination--seemingly elusive, to many--a legitimate worry to average Americans. Though the U.S. as a whole does not treat this as a pressing domestic issue. However, obtaining and protecting clean water in areas like Flint is a major issue all across the country. In the last few decades, towns and cities in the United States have been plagued by unsafe lead levels in tap water--our nation’s capital included. After Washington D.C. changed how it disinfected drinking water in 2001, the levels of unsafe lead in tap water increased by a startling amount of 20 times the federally approved level. Citizens were not informed until three years after the fact. Officials responded by removing lead water pipes--repairs that ended up only prolonging contamination. Jackson, Mississippi confronted contamination just last year. In this case, officials waited six months to disclose the contamination. Studying these cases, a disturbing pattern of arises: the public is consistently uninformed, and officials are egregiously slow to react. When they did, it was often inadequate.
The EPA stated that the streams that are tapped by the water utilities which are serving a third of the population are not covered by clean-water laws. Though these laws limit levels of toxic pollutants, they are outdated and often unscientific. For example, the EPA’s trigger level for lead--15 parts per billion--is a measurement based not on its potential as a threat. Instead, it is based on the fact that nine in 10 homes that are vulnerable to lead exposure fall below this measurement. Scientists not associated with the EPA have stated levels much lower than advised are reason for alarm http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/us/regulatory-gaps-leave-unsafe-lead-levels-in-water-nationwide.html?_r=0).
Water Contamination in Flint, Michigan
Recently, lead contamination has devastated Flint, Michigan. The struggle began in August of 2014, when the struggling city switched from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River as a means of saving money. Though cost-effective, this measure was problematic: the Flint River has been long-polluted by industry, and is now highly acidic. This acidic water released toxins from Flint’s aging pipes. Soon, residents were complaining about the color, taste and smell of the water. City officials claimed these complaints to be unfounded. An official report stated that “Flint water is safe to drink.” In January 2015, Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to its water supply, even waiving the $4 million cost. The state-appointed emergency manager declined (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/21/us/flint-lead-water-timeline.html).
In the United States, it is believed that somewhere between three and six million miles of pipes contain lead. In Flint Michigan, citizens are paying the price. It is estimated that 4.9% of children under the age of five that have lead levels in the blood of 5 micrograms per deciliter. It is important to know that blood levels do not have to be high to cause a detrimental effect. Children exposed to lead suffer from irreversible damage to their brains and nervous system, which leads to growth and behavior problems. This is why lead has been correlated to lower test scores (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/upshot/what-the-science-says-about-long-term-damage-from-lead.html?ribbon-ad-idx=8&rref=homepage&module=Ribbon&version=origin®ion=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Home%20Page&pgtype=article). So, the city of Flint could be suffering from this incident for decades to come. As of 9 February, 2016, Flint was put under a boil water advisory due to a drop in pressure in the city’s water supply. This pressure drop could result in bacterial contamination into the water system (http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2016/02/city_of_flint_issues_boil_wate.html).
It should not be overlooked that Flint is one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the United States (http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2015/09/flint_detroit_among_nations_po.html). Ethically, economic status of a city should not lead to such a lack of attention to crisis. However, this situation calls into question whether or not it was a factor as to why the government and the EPA did not help sooner. It is apparent now that lead in the water is not the only problem. It seems that if it has taken this long to take action against lead contamination, it could take decades more for other pollutants and poisons to be evaluated and recognized. Additionally, industries such as mining and agriculture push against increased investigation and testing. Situations like the one in Flint bring to light the intense need for reform. Clean water is a right that many people, abroad as well as in our own country, consistently suffer without.
Bookchin: An Analysis and an Answer
Social ecologist Murray Bookchin states that nature and society are interlinked; seeing them as a duality is harmful. He argues, then, that human culture and innovation (“second nature”) are natural (Bookchin 287). To him, it has the potential for greatness as well as misery: “[human development] contains both the danger of tearing down the biosphere and, given a further development of humanity toward an ecological society, the capacity to provide an entirely new ecological direction.” (Bookchin 289). The crisis in Flint does not showcase human innovation at its best; it is the massive growth of industry in this city that lead to the suffering of so many of its members.
Bookchin argues that in order to truly solve ecological problems, we must also address the social issues (Bookchin 285). As residents have voiced, this kind of extreme contamination may not have been an issue had Flint not been a poor and largely black community. Social circumstances not only help in creating ecological problems, they help sustain them. It was budget cuts, after all, that lead to such careless decisions that contaminated Flint’s water. Instead of being focused on the safety of citizens, officials were focused on money and politics. It was not just individuals who are accountable, but agencies as well. The EPA’s low standards concerning what counts as hazardous and what does not are unsatisfactory.
Bookchin would see this problem partly as a manifestation of the capitalist market imperative “grow or die.” (Bookchin 292-293) The city of Flint prioritized its industry and budget over the safety of human lives. It is the industry that polluted the Flint River in the first place, the harsh economy that aggravated the struggling city in the first place, and those same industries are fighting to grow more and more. Budget cuts led to poor decision-making, and then lies and deceit.
In order to combat these negative outcomes of second nature, Bookchin would suggest a shift in power from government elites to locally based and environmentally aware social groups (Bookchin 295-296). If power was localized, there would not be inflated agencies like the EPA focused more on sheer efficiency than actual safety. These local groups would properly synthesize the social and ecological issues. Decisions would not be a simple matter of the economy and the budget; they would be informed and comprehensive. Government officials would not be so removed that they could deceive and harm their communities—they would be members of them.