When the water in Flint, Michigan was found to be corroding cars at a General Motors’ (GM) factory, government officials agreed to change the factory’s water source, yet the same water source continued to poison the residents of Flint for another year.
From 17 to 20 October governments will meet in Quito, Ecuador, for HABITAT III, the UN’s most important conference about cities, which only occurs once every 20 years. HABITAT III looks to inaugurate a new urban agenda and set down goals about how cities can and should be responsible for the wellbeing of their inhabitants.
Flint’s ongoing crisis demonstrates some of the challenges cities face, all the more important due to extensive urbanisation, which means that half the world’s population now lives in cities. Judging by the example of Flint, much more can be done to hold state officials to account, and protect and support the most vulnerable in society, as corporations become more powerful.
In October 2014, six months after the crisis in Flint had begun, GM were given permission by the city’s emergency manager, appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, to reconnect their water to Detroit’s water source, Lake Huron, at a cost of $440,000. According to reporting by Democracy Now!, GM also took all the water fountains out of the plant, indicating they knew it was not fit for human consumption.
All over the world, the poorest pay the most for water, and 650 million people – almost 1 in 10 – don’t have easy access to clean water. Many of these people spend half their daily income on informal water supplies, while those connected to formal water sources pay a fraction of this amount, according to a report published this year by Water Aid. It cites Papua New Guinea as a salient example, where 60% of the population lives without access to clean water, and water costs, on average, 54% of an already economically deprived person’s salary.
But the United States is the richest country in the world, and the web of factors which have brought about this crisis did so because – in America as elsewhere – poor lives matter less than richer ones. “If this had happened in a more well-to-do or more economically successful or vibrant area, it is arguable that the problem would not have become as bad as it was permitted to become… their voice was more easily ignored,” lawyer Kenneth Stern, Chief Executive of Stern Law PLLC, who has represented many Flint residents affected by the crisis, told IPS.
“It’s shameful. I’m not proud as an American to say that to you. It embarrasses me, quite frankly… You can’t treat these people like that,” Stern said.
“It is truly sad that money is more important than the welfare of the people,” Lorei Graham, a Flint resident who to this day deals with chronic rashes and hair loss as a result of ongoing contact with Flintwater, told IPS. Graham has two jobs, one in a department store, another for a merchandising agency. She used to work in a gas station, where customers would cringe at the sight of her skin, thinking she was contagious, an experience she says wore her down.
In East Chicago’s West Calumet Housing Complex, 1,100 residents were recently forced to move after extraordinary levels of lead were found in their soil, showing that the public health crisis in Flint is by no means a lone example of negligence towards poor, primarily black citizens. There are thought to be comparable problems with plumbing in at least 19 states.
“Really, humans matter. Life matters,” said Flint resident Clarissa Camez to IPS. “And when you put profits before people, profits before the environment, profits before the good of all, this is what you end up with.”
What happened in Flint
All of Flint’s 98,310 residents have been exposed to the water’s various toxins. A public health crisis of enormous proportions has afflicted the city: Legionnaire’s Disease, a virulent form of pneumonia caused by bacteria that can multiply in certain water systems, has so far killed 10 of the 87 people it affected. Though data is scarce, the city’s 8-9000 children under six have been exposed to lead poisoning, which leads to brain damage, developmental disorders, and sudden behavioral change. It has also been linked to violent behaviour later in life.
Graham has noticed changes of these kinds in her own grandchildren. Her 8-year-old granddaughter, who used to be a good student, is now struggling in school. Her grandson, who is even younger, is no longer the obedient kid he once was, and she says that both children are far slower to respond to requests. These reports are incredibly common, and doctors are clear that no level of lead exposure is safe for developing brains.
About 57 percent of Flint’s inhabitants are black, and 41.6 percent of the city lives below the poverty line. There is nothing accidental about the fact that Flint’s primarily black population experiences increased poverty, while its more affluent suburbs are still substantially white: beginning in the 1930s, racist mortgage redlining policies were explicitly and systematically designed to stop black people from buying homes and building wealth, and left them more vulnerable to extortion through contracts that overvalued homes, harshly punished them for missing payments and never entitled them to own those houses.
These policies enabled white residents to move out when GM began to de-industrialise and jobs began to be cut in the 1940s, as the company sought cheaper labour according to the whims of the global economy. This trapped black people in increasingly economically deprived areas, and lay the groundwork for the poverty that persists in Flint today, a shell of the headquartered industrial town General Motors claimed it as in 1908.
“The Federal Housing Administration, along with the Homeowners Loan Corporation, mapped out cities across the country and determined which areas of the metropolis were safe for federally backed mortgages,” Andrew Highsmith, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Demolition Means Progress, a history of inequality and metropolitan development in Flint, told IPS. “Effectively, this enabled millions of white Americans to leave cities like Flint or Los Angeles and move to racially segregated suburbs with federal subsidies.”
Alongside the movement of whites into the suburbs, a drastic restructuring of state revenue-sharing occurred between 1998 and 2012, reducing Flint’s income from $900 million to $215 million, and significantly diminishing its tax base. This is led to a chronic lack of investment in public services. The same impulses underlay initial plans to build a cost-saving pipeline and the corresponding switch from Lake Huron to Flint River water.
Cutting Flint’s money, Highsmith says, has been “part of this broader shift towards austerity,” “this belt-tightening at all levels of government”. But, reflecting the same pattern of prioritising private investments over basic social provisions, in this topsy-turvy world, enormous tax subsidies were created to attract private investment, such as the millions film studios were offered to set up in Michigan. GM saves an undisclosed amount in capped tax credits, in return for which the company has made a deal with Governor Snyder that it should spend a billion on public investment.
Although Flint’s water has been switched back to Lake Huron, the crisis is far from over for Flint’s residents.
Residents “are still not drinking water. They are still afraid of the water,” Stern says. “Many of these people if not most of them are still washing their clothes in only bottled water; many of them are still drinking only bottled water; many of them are still bathing in bottled water.”
This is more than just inconvenient, he stresses. It is an extraordinary cost to bear over years – and Graham, like many other Flint residents, is still being charged for water that has poisoned her and continues to cause them severe health problems There have been recent reports of shigellosis in Flint, a bacterial disease that spreads from people not washing their hands.
There are also a vast number of problems caused by the crisis for which it is impossible to demonstrate a direct causal connection. Camez suffers from a chronic auto-immune disorder, as well as accompanying psychiatric effects. Both have been aggravated by the crisis – she experiences tingling in her hands and feet, she has pain in her joints and her hair falls out. All of the pre-existing difficulties in her life have been exacerbated by the crisis, and she conveys her sense of betrayal that what is causing all the ruin in Flint is “something that is necessary for life”.
“People say, ‘why is it so important?’ Well, why is it so important that you have something that’s necessary for the sustenance and maintenance of life? You know, you can do without food for a few days, but you should really have water every day. It would help if it was clean.”