January 22, 2016

Water Wars and Reliable Data: From Bolivia to Flint, Michigan

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

As an undergraduate majoring in Latin American and Latina/o studies, I remember watching a documentary about the Cochabamba protests against the World Bank's push for water privatization in the South American country of Bolivia. During the late 1990s-early 2000s, the country was the poorest in Latin America with 70% of Bolivians living below the poverty line.

Government officials attempted to remedy the economy by following a shock therapy model. This included the implementation of neoliberal reforms, such as halting state subsidies and the privatization of publicly-owned assets. Within Cochabamba, a city in central Bolivia, privatization meant transference of the publicly held water system to a private consortium led by the Bechtel Corporation.

With privatization came price hikes that amounted to 20% of local citizens' monthly income, water shut-offs, and the inability for many to gain access to drinking and/or irrigation water. The water rate hikes and shut-offs led to a series of protests in 2000. The documentary is a fascinating look into citizen's rights, the impact of global systems on local conditions, social change, and the role of the state in representing local decisions.

At the time, I remembered thinking about what water fights might look like in the United States and if this was even something we would ever encounter here. Well, have you heard about the contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan?

Flint is representative of many deindustrialized, rust belt towns. With the shrinking auto industry, the city experienced population loss and increased poverty rates. In 2011, with rising poverty and the city unable to pay its debts, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of financial emergency in Flint and appointed an emergency manager. In Michigan, emergency managers can sell off city assets, break union contracts, and limit elected officials power, among other things.

In 2013, in an effort to save money, the Flint emergency manager switched from the city's (non-polluted) water source in Lake Huron to the long-polluted Flint River. The switch was slated to last for only two years, while a new supply line was built from Flint to Lake Huron. After the switch, however, several residents began experiencing adverse effects from the water, including hair loss, rashes, and lead poisoning.

According to the World Health Organization, once lead enters the body it is then distributed to our organs such as the brain, kidneys, liver, and is stored in our teeth and our bones. The effects of lead poisoning include memory loss, developmental impairment in children, increased high blood pressure and kidney damage. In pregnant women, lead poisoning can result in miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and low infant birth weight.

While the effects of lead poisoning are dire, the presence of lead in water is treatable. When the emergency manager switched to the Flint River, in accordance with federal law, he should have ensured that the water was treated with an anti-corrosive agent. This would have cost $100 a day, which amounts to $73,000 over the course of 2 years (the time period needed to build the new supply line to Lake Huron). According to the mayor of Flint, it will now cost $1.5 million to fix the city's water infrastructure. This does not take into consideration the cost of imminent health issues that will arise from residents' ingestion of lead, or the civil suit that residents have filed against the state.

A group of local medical doctors and a team from Virginia Tech took it upon themselves to conduct testing of the water supply and of lead levels in children and to share that data with Michigan officials. Despite their alarming findings (with lead levels doubling and tripling in the tested children), the local emergency manager and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) ignored the data for several weeks and did not take action for months. In total, residents of Flint have been consuming contaminated water for at least 18 months.

While the events in Cochabamba and Flint center on different aspects of water access – with privatization in Bolivia and cost-cutting measures in Flint – they both highlight a refusal by governmental officials or corporate managers to take seriously data on how certain economic measures impact local citizens.

As sociology and the scientific method teaches us, however, asking questions, looking at the relationship of variables, triangulating and (re)checking data, and finding reliable data allows us to uncover hidden truths and to critically analyze the narratives, information, and stories that we encounter.

But how does one differentiate between reliable data and unreliable data? In order to ensure reliability, one must locate the source of the data and the data collection methods. This allows you look at the raw data first-hand and, if necessary, to replicate the research protocol and see if you come up with similar results.

In the Flint case, the Michigan DEQ consistently denied that high lead levels in the Flint River water existed. Recent claims suggest that staff at the DEQ did not have sufficient training, expertise, or data analysis software to adequately test the water. Other reports claim that the DEQ may have falsified their reports. Whether this was gross mismanagement or a failure of scientific analysis or a combination of the two, local medical doctors and researchers at Virginia Tech found conflicting data that local officials should have been taken more seriously. In combing through various online sources, I was able to locate the Flint Water Study website. It contains information on the Virginia Tech researchers, their research goals, their methods, and their findings.

While reliable data is important, sociology also teaches us to interrogate what types of evidence and which voices are valued and disregarded within scientific study. Residents of Flint raised concerns as soon as the Emergency Manager decided to redirect the water supply away from Lake Huron.

Complaints included "discolored water with bad tastes and foul smells." Residents knew that there was something wrong with the water, but believed that the government would not put them in harm's way. In an effort to balance the budget, however, the emergency manager chose to ignore the human impact that came along with cost cutting.

Not only does the Flint case raise concerns over water contamination, it also highlights the ways that race and class both intersect and influence political and economic decisions. Flint residents, who are predominantly Black (56.6%), White (37.4%), and Latin@/x (35.7%) and low-income (with a median income of $24,834 and with 41.5% living below the poverty level) were largely ignored by local officials. It took scientific experts— medical doctors and Virginia Tech students and professors— to convince local officials to rethink their stance that the water supply was safe. Meanwhile, residents of Flint are now left wondering about the lifelong health effects of the lead they've consumed for almost 2 years.

How does the story of Flint raise issues of access to clean water throughout the U.S.? What do the case studies of Cochabamba and Flint tell us about the role of power in research? Or about how data might be used?


Might sound a bit funny at first, but I just saw Leonardo Dicaprio's documentary which surprisingly does make sense and long story short - things are changing really fast starting from the Equator. And from THERE on... we contaminate like...

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