Why is Flint dealing with developing world problems?

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Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp is a communications professional at Minerva Strategies – a boutique consultancy looking to inspire action and create positive change through smart communication. Sara joined the Minerva team after establishing and staffing the first-ever communication position at Global Washington, a statewide membership organization of nonprofits, academic institutions, foundations, and businesses working in international development and global health. For approximately 20 months, Sara lived in pre-war Syria teaching English, increasing the communication capacity of a local microfinance nonprofit focused on Syria’s unemployed youth, and further developing her Arabic language proficiency. Sara loves a challenge and is obsessed with learning new things, from digging into current debates on international and domestic issues, to digital media and storytelling, to studying languages like Amharic, Dutch, or Farsi in her free time. She applies her strong curiosity to all global health communication challenges. Sara completed her MA in Development Studies with distinction at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Washington.
Sara Veltkamp

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Flint, Michigan seems to have been misplaced on the global map. While clearly within the confines of a Midwestern state of the wealthiest economy in the world, the situation of the city, slowly deteriorating since the 1980s, is better suited to a humanitarian disaster zone, or a post-conflict state.

Here are three reasons why:

  1. The water is not safe to drink.

In an attempt to save money, the city government decided to stop paying the city of Detroit for treated water from Lake Huron, opting instead to pump water from the Flint River.

That was two years ago. Despite the foul smell and bad taste, the city told residents that the water was fine to drink. When General Motors decided to stop using the water, in 2013, because it was too corrosive for industry, the government told the people that it was fine to drink. However, recent research results from Virginia Tech found dangerously high levels of lead in the water, and as a result, in children.

Lead poisoning is dangerous, particularly to kids, as it can cause symptoms from developmental delay to fatigue. In adults, lead poisoning can lead to joint pain, reduced fertility, and miscarriage. In addition to the lead poisoning, the water may also have led to the death of at least ten people due to the presence of legionella in the water. Legionella is bacteria that leads to Legionnaire’s Disease — a severe and often fatal form of pneumonia.

Flint is not alone in having undrinkable water. Clean water is also scarce in war-weary corners of Afghanistan, post-earthquake Haiti, and monsoon-ravaged Cambodia — all poverty-stricken countries coping with legacies of disaster and conflict. Should a city in the US be grappling with the same problems as the poorest parts of the developing world?

  1. The government does not protect people.

Bad governance and corruption are also problems that plague large swathes of the developing world. They collude to keep people poor and disenfranchised, and the situation is no different in Flint.

First, the local government decided to shut off clean water flow from Detroit because of the expense .  Access to water is a basic human need— this isn’t the place to be cost cutting. And they continued to charge the population for the lower quality water being pumped from the Flint River.

Second, the government continued to use contaminated water for years, despite industry leaders like General Motors complaining that it was too corrosive for industrial use. It is clear that corrupt government officials covered up this information, though the blame, floating from local officials up to the Michigan governor, has yet to find a home.

  1. Extreme poverty and lack of opportunity

In addition to the current water crisis, Flint has a host of other problems, the likes of which most Americans do not experience. The mean income in Flint is around $25,000. While that is more than people who make $2/day in many parts of the developing world, it is meager compared to the $48,000 annual mean salary of Michiganders.

Flint’s financial problems are largely due to the automaker General Motors. Plants closed, opened, shifted, or changed management, all the while destabilizing the jobs and lives of the people who depended on the giant for survival. According to US census information, 42 percent of people in Flint live below the poverty level, compared to 17 percent statewide.

Unemployment rates are on par with the state-level rates, but people in Flint work for less than their peers in other cities. The only “positive” aspect of this poverty and lack of opportunity is that it is fairly universal within the city. No one is getting ahead, therefore in terms of relative success, people do not feel the lack as acutely.

To quote an article on Flint’s poverty on Mlive.com: “A lot of people are not even aware of how it affects them, because they haven’t been exposed to anything different,” said Dr. Recco S. Richardson, a clinical therapist for Hurley Mental Health in Flint and North Oakland Family Counseling in Clarkston. “If you don’t know you are short, you don’t think about being short until you are around tall people. You have a group of people in Flint that are not aware of the fallout or the detriment. They are just living day to day.”

But is ignorance bliss for the people of Flint? Doubtful, when they can’t pay rents or mortgages — evidenced by the nearly 5,000 abandoned homes that were demolished in the last few years in the Flint area.

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We must do better than this.

There is no reason that people should drink unsafe water and die of water-borne illnesses, anywhere. But in the wealthiest country in the world, this is unforgivable. Government, from the local to state to national level need to be held accountable for poisoning people through ignorance and cost-saving measures. As for economic survival, we bail out the auto industry and the banks in a crisis, but what about the people that depend on those systems, like the people of Flint?