NORA ZACHARSKI ‘19
Turning on the tap and having clean water come out instantly is something that most of us here on the Hill take for granted. When we hear people talk about unclean, toxic water, they are usually referring to third world countries, where people (mostly women) spend hours every day walking in the heat to get dirty, unfit drinking water for their families. Lately, however, talk of unclean water has been hitting a little closer to home.
In April 2014, officials in the city of Flint, Mich decided to stop using water from Detroit and source their water from the polluted Flint River instead. Although residents reported that they were getting sick, experiencing rashes and finding missing clumps of their children’s hair, the city insisted that the water was safe. It was not until Oct. 2015 that the government finally acknowledged that the water was hazardous, and declared a state of emergency.
Although this crisis is obviously a wakeup call for our country, it is also important to note that Flint is by no means alone in this dilemma. According to a 2011 National Resources Defense Council study, 19 cities in the U.S. showed signs of pollution and deteriorating plumbing, including Albuquerque, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego and Fresno.
A recent NPR article also covered the town of St. Joseph, La., which has experienced problems similar to Flint’s for the past decade, but has not received any media attention until recently. St. Joseph’s water is dark brown because of a broken pipe from an older system, yet local officials have said the water is not dangerous. Garrett Boyte, a resident of St. Joseph told NPR, “This isn’t just happening in St. Joseph or in Flint. It’s happening in Louisiana, it’s happening in Kentucky and Tennessee and Mississippi and in areas of poor and disenfranchised communities across the country.”
In fact, so many areas that are having these water crises are poverty stricken, that it’s hard not to feel that the lack of help on the government’s end is not intentional. This is classism, and to some extent, racism as well.
60 percent of Flint’s population is African American, and nearly 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, compared with about 17 percent for the rest of the state (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2013). On the other hand, St. Joseph, La. is 77 percent African American and 20 percent white, with about 34 percent of people living below the poverty line.
St. Joseph’s water problem, which has been going on for a decade, is mainly due to old pipes that have yet to be replaced. Louisiana State Health Officer, Jimmy Guidry, has said that the town simply can’t afford to keep up with the infrastructure. This may be true, but if this town was comprised of more white middle class individuals, would this problem have been going on for as long as it has been?
Although these problems are far from being resolved, the best way we can start to fix them is through conversation. Talking about these issues, as well as acknowledging that this is a national problem, and not just a concentrated one, is extremely important. Contributing to the already ongoing discussions in our country about classism, race and all the other “isms,” in a thoughtful and respectful manner, is the only way that we can put an end to problems like these, once and for all.