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Basu: Flint situation reveals deeper societal issues

Pia Basu, Columnist

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At the end of Sunday night’s Democratic debate, candidate Hillary Clinton took the opportunity to address the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. She cited negligence at the hands of the state government and succinctly got right to the heart of the issue. “I’ll tell you what,” she said. “If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.”

Clinton is right to say that had the demographics of the community looked different, action would have been taken much sooner. But why are children in a developed country drinking contaminated water and susceptible to lead poisoning in the first place?

Essentially, in an effort to cut costs during tough economic times, Flint stopped receiving water from Lake Huron and switched to water from the Flint River in 2014 while a new pipeline was being built. Shortly after the switch, residents began to complain about water quality. Many of the service lines leading to Flint are made of lead, further contaminating the water supply.

Since 2014, Flint locals have reported discolored water foul in odor, and they have developed rashes, stomachaches and increased levels of lead in their bloodstreams — especially those of children. The problem stems from the complete lack of good governance and regard for the people of Flint, where 41.5 percent of the population lives in poverty, the unemployment rate is around 16 percent and there is only one police officer for about every 830 people.

The citizens of Flint trusted their city to provide them with clean water — a basic right — and it failed them. Worse, the state government tried to pretend nothing was wrong. Was the expectation that the people of Flint would have to drink and bathe in dirty water until the new pipeline was completed? Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, did not declare a state of emergency until 2016, even after local officials in Flint asked for help.

It remains to be seen what a long term solution is for the people of Flint. What is more upsetting is the fact this happened in the first place. We are fortunate here in Evanston to be able to turn on the tap, drink clean water and shower safely. The people of Flint found themselves drinking contaminated water not through any fault of their own. Their taps run with toxic water because infrastructure fell into disrepair, and their state government tried to cut corners and then failed to address the mess they created. Further, the slow response was a result of the location of the problem. If Flint looked more like Evanston, the government response would have differed.

This past weekend, the Northwestern community commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  At the candlelight vigil held Monday night in Alice Millar Chapel, the keynote speaker Kellogg Prof. Nicholas Pearce challenged all members of the community to think about what Dr. King would say to us today. On the issue of Flint, I think he would repeat his famous phrase, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  It is up to all of us to demand good government and basic human rights for everyone, especially our fellow Americans. Unfortunately, it does not suffice to assume that because this is 2016 and we are all Americans, we all experience the same quality of governance. The situation in Flint is a prime example of the opposite.

Pia Basu is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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