Flint’s Water Crisis: Privatization vs. Human Right

The contrast of water as a private commodity vs. water as a human right demonstrates the diversity in approaches to water management, identifies Ryan Stoa in Jurist. These contrasting viewpoints are playing out in the Flint, Michigan water crisis.

Review of the Crisis

It has been 2 years since the City of Flint, Michigan decided to switch its water supply from Lake Huron and the Detroit River (provided by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) to the contaminated Flint River (provided by the Karegnondi Water Authority) to save the city a projected $19 million over eight years. After this switch, residents complained about their malodorous and poor tasting water, headaches, loss of hair, and rashes. The City of Flint told residents that the water was still safe as long as they boiled it to rid it of any bacteria.

In January 2015, the authorities finally admitted this was a problem. Simple testing showed that Flint violated the Safe Drinking Water act due to high levels of trihalomethanes (TTHM) (chemicals used to disinfect water but increase the risk of cancer and major organ and nervous system failure) in the water and high levels of lead in the blood of infants and children. In some cases, lead concentration reached toxic levels.

Additionally, 87 people have been sickened and 9 people have died from Legionnaire’s disease (a severe form of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria). Yet even though the water supply has been identified as a likely source of this deadly disease, the water still hasn’t been tested for Legionella bacteria.

Water Rights

Many critics echoed the human right to water perspective, while others have called for further privatization of water resources. Flint’s water was never fully privatized, nor was it guaranteed by human right, as water was shut off for those who couldn’t pay the exorbitant monthly fees.

Stoa notes in Jurist, “In the face of crumbling infrastructure and shrinking budgets, it will be tempting for water managers of any utility to short-change the system in favor of short-term payoffs. Short-changing Flint’s water quality in favor of cost-saving measures was not a unique trade-off, but rather a circumstance public and private utilities will likely find themselves facing in the future. If Flint provides one lesson learned, then, it’s that water regulators may want to reconsider the costs and benefits of short-term water management thinking. The nation’s water infrastructure is in need of repair, and water resources are in need of responsible governance. There may be more than one way to accomplish those objectives, but it will be hard to do so without significant investments.”

Read the rest of his article in Jurist for more information on the viewpoints and how they may influence water management across the country.