by Jesse Worker and Elizabeth Moses
(this blog first appeared on www.wri.org)
The lead crisis affecting Flint, Michigan’s drinking water has been the cause of outrage and concern in the United States since it made national headlines in October. It’s raised the issue of the widespread risk of aging drinking water infrastructure, and brought to light the way regulatory agencies dismissed complaints from citizens. Recently, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force—a panel of five public health and policy experts—released areport with 44 recommendations to remedy the failures that exposed a low-income U.S. city of 100,000 to lead poisoning for at least 18 months. The message was clear: Governance failures were at the heart of the water crisis.
The Underlying Causes of Flint’s Water Crisis
Laws and institutions that promote transparent, inclusive and accountable water quality regulation and public service delivery are widely acknowledged as essential to effective governance. Generally these include environmental democracy laws that support the public’s ability to access government-held information, to participate in policymaking and to seek justice for grievances.
However, inequities and injustices arise when these rights are available for some and not others. While the Task Force’s report places the greatest share of responsibility for the Flint water crisis with the state, it highlights governance failures at all levels, including:
Flint Is Not Alone
These sorts of governance failures are a global problem, especially for groups or communities that are politically or economically disempowered.
For example, WRI and its partners in Indonesia, Mongolia and Thailand have worked with communities dealing with water pollution. Villages along the Ciujung River in Indonesia, the Tuul River in Mongolia and the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Thailand are all witnessing significant deterioration of the water they use for washing, bathing, fishing and other livelihood activities. Residents suspect these problems might be connected to industrial discharges, spurred by poor compliance and minimal enforcement of water quality and public health laws, as well as a lack of public participation in decision-making processes.
In fact, we’ve found that these communities in Asia suffer many of the same issues found in Flint, including that:
A Need for Better Transparency and Accountability
Government agencies, even in wealthy countries, sometimes lack the incentives, capacity or leadership to fulfill their mandate of protecting public health and the environment. It is at these times that environmental democracy is so important. The public must be able to access accurate public health information, have their voices heard by responsible parties and seek accountability.
Flint residents sounded the alarm almost immediately. If they had been taken seriously and the right governance structures were in place, the crisis could have been minimized or averted. Let’s not let this same situation play out in other communities around the world.