Lessons from Flint and noDAPL – How do we take control of our water?
Water is a vital resource which is too easily dismissed as a given. Occasionally we become aware, as water problems surface in the media, that maybe we are taking it for granted. We celebrated World Water in March. The Flint Water Crisis came to a settlement, and we remembered that people in Flint still lack access to clean drinking water. We’ve just heard that long-protested Dakota Access Pipeline is now filled with oil, despite the fact we thought we had stopped it. Protection of our water and environment demands our constant attention; we cannot depend on our government to do it for us.
For most of us in the States, water is a never-ending stream, flowing out of the faucet. People have giant swimming pools filled with clean, clear, chlorinated water. Popsicles, frappuccinos, and mojitos can be slurped down without a moment’s pause. It is not so easy in other parts of the world.
When I first arrived in Southeast Asia, where I now live, I was anxious and scrupulous when it came to water consumption. I remember accidentally breaking the water rule in Laos, where I realized too late that I had brushed my teeth with (reputedly unsafe) tap water. I spent the next hour obsessively scouring travel forums looking for anecdotes from other careless backpackers who made the same error, hoping that it would not make me sick.
In Laos, as in other parts of Southeast Asia, travel advisory boards strongly suggest that travelers stick to bottled water. Piped water is prone to blockages and leaks and is often contaminated by pollutants which wash into drains and watercourses. Increased urbanization into major cities only makes these problems worse. The only way to guarantee safe consumption is to pay for bottled water from a reputable company.
It is paradigm-shifting to suddenly have to worry about the water I drink, and it is hard to imagine that people here have dealt with these issues for decades. It is harder still to imagine that these same problems are happening in the United States. In Flint Michigan, people have dealt with polluted water for nearly three years.
Why did it take so long for the government to step in and help?
The Flint water crisis, and how the government failed to help
Water pollution in Flint continues to plague citizens physically, emotionally, and economically. This crisis demonstrates that water is not always guaranteed to be safe in the United States. Authorities’ response to the crisis — or lack thereof — shows that we cannot depend on our government to always put the needs of the people above economic gains.
City authorities chose to switch Flint’s water source to the corrosive Flint River to save money for the city. Before the switch in April, 2014, they did not properly treat the pipes to reduce the chance of corrosion. They performed no tests the water to ensure the Flint River water was safe to drink. Consequently, Flint citizens have been exposed to lead poisoning from the damaged pipes and cancer-causing chemicals. Ten people have died from Legionnaires disease resulting from bacteria exposure.
Citizens were aware of the damages posed by the water. From day one, they noted problems, bringing complaints to the city. Water smelled bad. It was discolored. Was it safe to drink? Sure it’s safe, the authorities assured. We’ll just pump it full of chlorine. Maybe this week boil it before drinking while we add more chlorine. It’s temporary, don’t worry. Instead of taking ownership of these problems, officials deferred responsibility, redacted evidence showing harm, and took short-cuts in mediating the problems, all which prolonged citizens’ exposure to this harmful water.
It took 18 months of activism before the city even admitted that the water was a problem
18 months filled with dirty water, health complaints and increasing national protest. It has taken even longer for authorities to find a solution.
Only this month – three years after the crisis began — the State of Michigan and the City of Flint settled the lawsuit with a plan to replace all of the lead-producing pipes by 2020. Until then, Flint citizens must continue using bottled water or a high-grade water filter. Yet citizens are receiving decreasing financial support from the state, despite the fact that the problem remains unsolved. The city has stopped door-to-door water delivery, and will close water distribution sites September. The governor has stopped subsidizing water bills for Flint citizens, citing budgetary constraints.
Meanwhile, The Environmental Protection Agency, designed to prevent such disasters, faces drastic changes under the current federal administration. Trump’s 2018 budget proposes a $13 million cut in compliance monitoring, which the EPA uses to ensure the safety of drinking water systems. We need more funding for the EPA, not less. Even when fully funded, it struggles to enforce its suggestions. In Flint, EPA administrators testified that they had urged authorities prepare for pipe corrosion, but they ‘encountered resistance’. This resistance is what caused lead leaching from the pipes, which has consequently put thousands of children at risk of permanent brain damage. We cannot allow for any more ‘resistance’ to water safety. We must demand that our water stay protected.
What happens when we ask for water protection?
If those with power and authority had taken proper precautions, then the Flint Water crisis would have hurt far fewer people. But when fight for environmental protection, we meet resistance and even violence. The protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline illustrates this unfortunate point, and it is imperative that we learn from the story.
The protest began in 2015 when members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and citizens from affected counties in the Midwest saw a threat to the Missouri River and lake Oahe — vital water sources for municipalities across multiple states. Energy Transfer Partners did not have to go environmental reviews required by the Clean Water Act. With no governmental oversight protecting the water source, the people of Standing Rock and many other citizens in pipeline-affected counties knew that the only way to protect their water was to raise their voices in protest. They set up the Sacred Stone Camp in the Pipeline’s pathway.
Support for the protest was widespread. By September 2016, thousands of native people traveled to Standing Rock’s occupation site and over 150 indigenous governments sent letters of support; the NoDAPL movement had become an unprecedented event — the largest congregation of Native Americans in over 100 years. The movement gained traction and became a symbol for civil rights, with support from Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, and Anonymous.
The democratic message that we all have the right to protect our environment and our water clearly resonated around the USA.
The reaction of the authorities to the noDAPL movement was violent and dehumanizing.
Dakota state troopers, the National Guard, and Energy Transfer Partner’s security teams meted out harsh treatment, utilizing attack dogs, bulldozers, strip-searches and pepper spray in their attempt to break people’s opposition to the pipeline. They showed not only a disregard for the protester’s right to clean water, but a shocking disregard for their lives.
It is vital that we recognize the significance of this violence because it shows that corporations will choose money over human lives.
Democracy Now’s video depicting protesters being attacked by guard dogs, was a breaking point for the movement. Seeing this violence firsthand sparked national outrage. People all over the United States marched in solidarity, pushed for divestment in DAPL from banks like Wells Fargo. A group of over 2000 retired military veterans journeyed to the protest site to guard against further violence. These actions of solidarity put the pressure on the Obama administration to the easement for its construction.
Why we must keep fighting
The fact that Donald Trump has once more approved the pipeline is not surprising. If anything it continues to teach an important lesson in response. It answers the question What do we do about taking control of our water?
The answer is we must keep fighting. If we want to ensure the enforcement environmental safety standards, we must demand it of our leaders. We cannot wait until disaster strikes — like in Flint — before the government starts thinking of its people. By speaking out and applying pressure on the State and corporations, we force them to show their hand. In the case of the DAPL, authorities were willing to meet resistance with violence. By exploiting this violence and showing it to the public we will gain solidarity. By showing how much suffering is happening, will we encourage people to fight for true change.
Until this happens, we must educate ourselves about our own water sources, and make sure our water is not at risk. We must recognize the inherent inequality when it comes to access to water, and protect those who are most vulnerable. We must keep raising our voice and demand that our government also protects us against future crises.
Now is the time to act. Here’s how.
How to Take Control of Your Water
- Find out where your water comes from, and find out how to test it if you are concerned. The EPA has resources and suggestions for how and when you should be testing your water.
- Protect what we have. Tell the White house to vote NO on cutting EPA funding.
- Help those who are vulnerable. Water and environmental problems affect the poor and marginalized in remote areas of the world. If you are lucky enough to have safe drinking water, lend your support to those who do not. HelpForFlint.com is a good place to start.