Who Has the Right to Clean Drinking Water?

When does clean water become a privilege rather than a right-

Story By: Madeline Baker

About a month ago, in the midst of the chaos of exams and three days before I was scheduled to go home, my mother sent me a text that read “No clean drinking water here, not sure when it will be resolved.” I wasn’t really surprised by this message, as contaminated drinking water isn’t out of the ordinary where I live. Corpus Christi, Texas, where I was born and raised, sits on the coastal part of the state, and is littered with refineries as you move inland. My hometown had undergone water boil advisories in the past, mostly due to an excess of chlorine in the water or something related to the pH levels. After reading my mom’s text, however, I decided to dig a little further and see what the issue was this time. The first result of my Google search was an article on NPR.org. “NPR,” I thought, “shit just got real.” This wasn’t just another water boil advisory, this was a complete ban on tap water for the entire 300,000 residents of Corpus Christi. The city council warned everyone not to drink, shower, cook, or wash dishes using the tap water. The contaminant in the water was more potent and harmful than anything that could simply be boiled out of the water.

I kept my eye on the situation over the next few days. I wanted to know what had contaminated our water and who was responsible for such a catastrophe. It was soon revealed that a man-made chemical called Indulin AA-86 had contaminated the water. Our local news channel described it as “an asphalt emulsifier that is corrosive to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract and can cause damage to internal organs.” Investigators eventually determined that the source of the issue was a leaking backwater drainage system of a refinery owned by the Texas oil and gas giant, Valero. As I mentioned before, Corpus Christi is teeming with privately owned refineries, some located very close to less-developed residential areas of the city. Despite the city being left without clean drinking water for a total of five days and households spending close to hundreds of dollars each in bottled water, Corpus Christi never took legal action against Valero. To do so would have cost the city a huge portion of the revenue it makes from Valero’s property taxes, and Valero would have threatened to end its business relationship with the city. Essentially, the health of Corpus Christi’s residents came second to big business.

Although Corpus Christi’s drinking water situation was nothing short of infuriating, it pales in comparison to the threat to drinking water faced by other communities across the country. In Flint, Michigan, the city’s drinking water has been plagued with contaminants for more than two years. In an attempt to cut the city’s budget, Flint’s city government also cut corners bringing clean, safe drinking water to the city’s predominantly black residents. The city’s drinking water was almost immediately compromised. It was only days ago that the levels of lead in the water tested below the federal limit. Residents of the city are now suing the EPA for its poor handling of the city’s water crisis and putting the health and safety of the city’s residents at risk. In North Dakota, the Dakota Access Pipeline threatens to contaminate the drinking water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a Native American community that is home to thousands of Sioux people.

Although the pipeline was originally routed near Bismarck, ND, a majority white city, the state rerouted the course of the pipeline in close proximity to Standing Rock, sparking accusations of environmental racism against the state government of North Dakota and the United States as a whole. Incidents like Flint and Standing Rock have sparked the same question among many: When does clean water become a privilege rather than a right?

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Photo Courtesy of The European Citizens’ Initiative

Simply put, water is life. It nourishes us, sustains our energy, and keeps our body fueled and alive. So why is clean drinking water threatened in the name of business? Why is it that the safety and health of some communities are not prioritized in local, state, and federal governments? Who really has a right to clean water? Questions like these shouldn’t have to be asked in the United States,  as access to clean drinking water should be afforded to all.  In 2010, the United Nations recognized drinking water and sanitation as essential to the realization of all human rights. While developing nations struggle to meet the clean water needs of their populations, a wealthy nation like the United States should have no trouble in recognizing this truth.  Access to this resource should be sufficient, safe, and affordable. Violations of this right to clean water on the basis of race are a denial of human rights and human dignity. The incident in my hometown of Corpus Christi, TX woke me up to these violations. I was appalled that my own city, the place I have called home for 20 years, was willing to dismiss this right to clean drinking water for its own financial benefit. Despite the resignation of the city’s mayor in mid-January, no significant action has been taken to better relationships between the city government and the residents of Corpus Christi.

The situations in Flint and At Standing Rock are similarly discouraging and deplorable. Water never should have been looked at as a privilege afforded to the few, but always as a basic human right owed to all. Until aggressive action is taken within government at the local, state and federal levels, affirming that the  right to water is the right to life, continued denial of this right will be pervasive. To stand up for this right or to find out more about the cause of clean water across the country, you can visit http://www.nodapl.life/ or http://www.righttowater.info/, just two of the many resources online that work to achieve the right to water for all.