Water quality is not just a developing country issue
Pollution of America’s drinking water is in the news again. 15 years ago, when I saw the Oscar-winning Erin Brokovich, it opened my eyes to the horror of industrial water pollution in the developed world. The movie showed the true story of a lawyer-activist as she combated Pacific Gas and Electric Company for its hexavalent chromium contamination of drinking water supplies in Hinkley, California.
The movie somewhat blurred the distinction in my eyes between the water issues of the developing and developed countries, and I realised that water quality was a universal problem. Still, I naively believed that incidents such as the one in Hinkley would make water utilities in America more vigilant and would never be repeated again.
I was wrong.
Julia Roberts won the Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for her role in Erin Brokovich
In January this year, the city of Flint in Michigan fell into a state of emergency as widespread lead contamination of its water supplies, which was continuing for over an year was finally recognised. Problems began when the city changed its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water (sourced from Lake Huron and Detroit River) to the Flint River. The corrosive Flint River water caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing extremely elevated levels of lead. As a result, residents have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead and are experiencing a range of health problems. An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that has killed ten people and affected another 77 is also attributed to the change in water source.
The most shocking aspect of the Flint disaster is the gross negligence of public officials, the cover-ups of data and sheer inaction on a matter of such extreme importance. Immediately after the switching of water supplies to Flint River in 2014, there were innumerable complaints of coloured water and skin allergies, which were not heeded. Even in September 2015, when a report was released from a children’s hospital confirming that the cases of elevated lead levels in children had doubled after switching to Flint River water, it was dismissed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality saying that the lead was within acceptable limits.
Ultimately, it took a heroic professor from Virginia Tech, who became a reporter and activist in order to tackle the federal government. The same Professor Marc Edwards had earlier spent six years uncovering lead contamination of Washington DC’s water supplies until in 2010 it was proven that authorities had lied to the public about the safety of the city’s water.
Several lawsuits have been filed against state and federal governments. The cost of fixing the water infrastructure of Flint (excluding health costs) is said to be US$1.5 billion. This is ironical, considering that the switch to Flint River water was carried out to save an expense of US$5 million over two years.
It’s not as if Flint was a rare incident. In 2015 itself, there were pollution incidents such as a chemical spill in Charleston, Virginia, a huge spill of toxic coal ash into Dan River from a power plant and an accidental overflow of a gold mine’s wastewater in Colorado. Meanwhile, the problems of pharmaceuticals, hormones and other emerging contaminants also remain unaddressed.
The USEPA projects it will cost US$384 billion over 20 years just to maintain the nation’s existing drinking water infrastructure. Replacing pipes and treatment plants as well as expanding systems to handle population growth could cost as much as US$1 trillion. Let’s not forget that 1.6 million people in the United States of America do not have access to running water. They are without plumbing, toilets, showers.
There is a general tendency to think that all the problems related to water are concentrated in Asia or developing countries. This view is held even by the developing countries themselves. But the truth is that, irrespective of country, there can be no let-up in vigilance. There has to be constant monitoring and maintenance in every water-related system. There has to be extensive collaboration and exchange of knowledge between utilities. Most importantly, it has to be understood that even though the costs might seem very daunting in the short-term, there will much much more to pay for later whenever the system gets breached, for surely it will get breached.