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To say that 2016 has gotten off to a bad start for our friends and neighbors in Flint, Michigan would be an understatement. After more than a year of being told by officials that their discolored, foul-smelling and off-taste tap water was safe to use and consume, the world now knows what locals have long feared: Flint’s water was laden with irreversibly harmful pollutants.
To live in one of the world’s richest and most developed countries, yet not have access to water that is clean and safe to drink is an inexcusable affront to human dignity. In fact, wherever it occurs, in rich countries or poor, basic human rights are violated when citizens’ voices are not heard, and accountability mechanisms fail—basic human rights including the right to safe drinking water.
There is no excuse for a situation like this, one in which heavily contaminated drinking water has jeopardized the health and wellbeing of tens of thousands of people. At WaterAid, we are outraged, and we stand in solidarity with all those who have been denied their most basic human right to access safe water. From California to Detroit, Nepal to Nicaragua, Zambia to Flint, we are reminded time and time again that access to clean water, toilets and hygiene is under threat in every corner of the globe. It’s crises like these that compel each of us to acknowledge just how vulnerable we really are.
WaterAid’s work is focused on international development, in countries where hundreds of millions don’t have access to basic water and sanitation, but where families are struggling with these same water access and contamination problems. We’ve seen first-hand the catastrophic impact that water contamination can have on people’s lives.
We’ve also learned a few things. First, the ability of citizens to be heard, and for government and other service providers to be held accountable is key to sustainable provision of safe water (or any other service for that matter). Second, we’ve learned that clean water is a universal human right that is disproportionally enjoyed by the wealthy (not unlike many other basic human rights). We’ve seen it in Flint, we’ve seen it a hundred times over all over the globe: those that are economically or otherwise marginalized are the ones most frequently denied access to clean, safe water. There is a direct correlation between inequality, poverty, and whether or not the voice of the community is heard by those who hold power and influence.
Third, we’ve learned that there are no quick fixes. While emergency response and mobilizing swiftly in a crisis is essential, all of the donated dollars and bottled water in the world cannot offer the long-term equitable solutions we need to prevent tragedies like Flint from hitting another town another day. If we vow to ensure that what’s happened here will never be repeated again, we need to start by recognizing and prioritizing the human right to safe water, and we must do this within a framework of effective, and sustainable long-term management of water resources. We need brave and effective leadership that moves away from short-term, quick fixes and takes a hard look at institutionalized discrimination. We need transparent water management, safe, well-maintained infrastructure, and community participation and ownership if we are to actually implement our right to safe water.
Never again do we want to read headlines of more than 9,000 children in a single town testing positive for irreversible lead poisoning. Never again do we want to write headlines about the half a million babies in developing countries who die each year from the lack of clean water. But unless we join together now to take action, these tragic, preventable stories will continue to repeat themselves.
We’re committed to changing this story.
This is a terrible and difficult time for our friends and neighbors in Flint, and it will be years before we can fully comprehend the long-term impact that Flint’s poisoned water has had on the 90,000 people living there. WaterAid stands in solidarity with the people of Flint and the local organizations actively working there. We call on the US government to finally commit to the human right to safe water once and for all. Now is the time to put our outrage to good use. Please join us in taking a stand on the water crisis and our universal human right to clean, safe water.