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"In poor communities like Flint, the health problems caused by lead exposure are simply added on to the other challenges associated with poverty, high levels of violence, reduced access to quality medical care, and low-performing public schools," Benevento writes. (Photo: Raul Pachecho-Vega/Flickr/cc)

Who Owns America's Water?

Not you. Not if you're an average American citizen.

Yes, water is a human right, fundamental to life - yet if you are an average American, you would be lucky to have access to it, at a price you can afford to pay and not be poisoned.

Just ask the residents of Flint, Michigan - a low income community forced for years to use expensive bottled water for everything from cooking to showers - they believe their tap water is good for one thing, and one thing only: To flush the toilet.

"In contrast to citizens, global corporations possess seemingly limitless access to clean water."

Flint first gained notoriety for lead-poisoned water in 2014, when the water source for the municipal water supply was changed from Detroit to Flint's own river. Having suffered decades of pollution from factories, Flint River contained high levels of chloride ions, making it highly corrosive to the lead pipes it travelled through.

Residents suddenly reported outbreaks of skin rashes and dramatic hair loss but most alarming was what happened to children and babies: foetal deaths increased 58 percent while children's lead exposure rates doubled.

Overnight, Flint became a cause celebre with high profile visits and promises from Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Even Hollywood lent its support, with superstar Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith, sending supplies of bottled water in solidarity. Yet for all that celebrity firepower, now four years on, do the residents of Flint have clean drinking water?

Hardly. In March 2017, as result of a lawsuit the state of Michigan agreed to set aside $97m for lead or galvanised steel water lines to be replaced for at least 18,000 households in the city of Flint until 2020. Yet, today, more than 12,000 homes are still without access to clean water.

Residents of these 12,000 households are forced to consume bottled water - an average of 151, 0,5l bottles daily just to meet minimal household needs.

Public protests had forced the free distribution of bottled water to Flint residents. But even this stopped in April when the state of Michigan, ignoring the pleas of Flint city officials, closed the last remaining water distribution centres.

For the many residents unable to buy bottled water, there is no choice but to continue using city water - water which, in 2015, contained lead levels recorded at 13,000 parts per billion at times, more than 866 times above federal guidelines.

How damaging is lead in drinking water to children? Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Icahn School of Medicine and a global expert on lead told the New Republic: "Even at the lowest levels of exposure, we know that lead erodes a child's IQ, shortens attention span, and disrupts behaviour ... Lead damages children's brains."

In contrast to citizens, global corporations possess seemingly limitless access to clean water. While Flint was experiencing the worst point in its water crisis, only two hours away in Evart - small town America, with clean streams and an untainted aquifer - the corporate multinational, Nestle, was pumping the equivalent of 100,000 times an average Michigan resident's water use into plastic bottles for sale at $1 a bottle across the American Midwest.

In return, Nestle paid the state of Michigan $200 annually - an amount equal to the quaterly water bill of an average Flint resident, who is charged at one of the highest rates for tap water in the US.

In 2016, Nestle saw sales of $7.4bn from bottled water. Not surprisingly, the company decided it wanted to pump, bottle and sell even more of Michigan's water, requesting permission for a 60 percent increase. Their application was approved.

This stands in stark contrast to the verdict in a class action suit filed by Flint residents - a legal action intended to secure community rights to affordable water. After losing in a lower court and appealing, federal court judges ruled against the action, stating: "A right of this nature is not rooted in our nation's traditions".

In poor communities like Flint, the health problems caused by lead exposure are simply added on to the other challenges associated with poverty, high levels of violence, reduced access to quality medical care, and low-performing public schools."Flint is not the only US city with a serious problem in its municipal water source. In 2016, a Reuters investigation found almost 3,000 areas in the US with metal and chemical poisoning rates far higher than Flint.

Corpus Christi, Texas, a predominately Hispanic city, was forced to close all its schools and businesses for four days in December 2016 when a corporate chemical spill rendered the city's water supply undrinkable.

"These are not isolated incidents, the Flints and the Corpus Christis," said Manuel Teodoro, a Texas A & M University researcher and co-author of a report on the disproportionate effect of bad water quality on poor and minority communities. "Data suggests that problems with drinking water are not just randomly distributed among the population," he told the Texas Tribune, "There is systematic bias out there."

The story of water in the US is the quintessential American story of wealth, class, race and privatisation of national resources running roughshod over human rights and equality. It is a story largely hidden from the American public.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency barred CNN and Associated Press (AP) journalists from entry to a Washington summit on water contamination. When the AP journalist asked to be admitted she was forcibly removed from the building by security guards.

In poor communities like Flint, the health problems caused by lead exposure are simply added on to the other challenges associated with poverty, high levels of violence, reduced access to quality medical care, and low-performing public schools. 

Michigan state was criminally negligent in the case of Flint, causing one of the worst public health crises in recent US history. And that crisis continues: reading tests for Flint third-graders last year fell almost 75 percent, with less than 11 percent of students reading at their grade level.

Those numbers wouldn't surprise LeeAnne Walters, winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize for the community movement she started to test drinking water in Flint.

While state authorities were telling Flint residents that their water was safe, Walters discovered lead levels in her home so high that her kitchen tap water qualified as hazardous waste.

"We were told they were winter-ising the system, and that's what caused it," Walters has said. "We were like, no, something's not right here ..."

One of Walters' children was diagnosed with lead poisoning, the others testing positive for lead exposure. Today Walters' children attend speech and occupational therapy for hand-eye coordination problems and speech impediments.

Multinationals like Nestle, intent on ever bigger profits from bottled water sales, stay far away from the harsh reality of brain-damaged children. Nestle's bottled water line called "Pure Life" features children as "water buddies" who inspire each other to enjoy drinking water.

Such greed and cynicism wouldn't be lost on the families of Flint, Michigan. It shouldn't be lost on the rest of us either.

© 2021 Al-Jazeera English

Gina Benevento

Gina Benevento is a former UN diplomat based in Jerusalem, now living and working in Madrid as a strategic communications consultant.

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