The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, would likely not have occurred “if the affected population group was well-off or overwhelmingly white,” according to Philip Alston, an expert speaking on behalf of the United Nations.
“[Had] elected officials been much more careful, there would have been a timely response to complaints rather than summary dismissals of concerns, and official accountability would have been insisted upon much sooner,” Alston, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, stated.
Flint, according to the U.S. Census’ QuickFacts, is 56.6 percent Black, 35.7 percent white, 3.9 percent Hispanic, 3.9 percent two or more races, and less than one percent American Indian as well as Asian. 41.6 percent of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. Because of these demographics, the crisis has been described by some as “environmental racism.”
Further, Alston and two additional experts said Tuesday, the water crisis in Flint raises “serious human rights concerns” and immediate action must be taken.
“The Flint case dramatically illustrates the suffering and difficulties that flow from failing to recognize that water is a human right, from failing to ensure that essential services are provided in a non-discriminatory manner, and from treating those who live in poverty in ways that exacerbate their plight,” they stated.
The three independent experts were selected by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council. According to the council’s website, “The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.” These experts are not paid for their positions and are not considered U.N. staff members.
Lo Heller, the special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, called the crisis “a potential violation of [Flint residents’] human rights.”
“Serious problems reported on water quality, particularly high concentrations of lead, are also concerning human rights issues,” Heller said.
Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, acknowledged the disproportionately high bills Flint residents were forced to pay the highest of any city in the country, even while the water was contaminated and cited “deep and obvious connections between the human right to adequate housing, the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and the right to life.”
“Persistently high water and sewage rates cause housing affordability issues and may expose the most vulnerable residents to homelessness when they can no longer afford their bills,” she said.
The experts made their statements one day before President Barack Obama made a visit to Flint and met with Gov. Rick Snyder, who has been largely criticized and considered by many at fault for the crisis, and Snyder’s administration.
Obama echoed the sentiments Snyder has been emphasizing to Flint’s citizens, encouraging residents that the tap water is safe to drink as long as it’s been filtered an advising that only pregnant women and children six and under be restricted to bottles of water. He also said that the support team he sent to Flint are committed to moving forward.
“The agencies that serve you the agencies that specialize in health and housing, and those that support small businesses and our kids’ education; those that are responsible for the food that our children eat and, of course, the water we drink everybody is on duty,” he said. However, he acknowledged that replacing the affected pipes “may be a long-term process,” taking up to two years or even longer.