Rebecca Cook / Reuters

Flint’s water crisis is a human rights violation

The state of Michigan put money ahead of the welfare of its children

January 9, 2016 2:00AM ET

On Jan. 5, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint and Genesee County, where lead in the area’s drinking water has been showing up at toxic levels in the bloodstreams of children. The water became toxic because of a decision by the government Snyder runs.

In 2014 the city of Flint’s emergency manager, appointed by the state, ordered that the city stop drawing water from Lake Huron and start taking it from the Flint River. However, the river’s corrosive waters stripped lead from the water system’s pipes, contaminating the drinking water. Though the city has switched back to drawing water from Lake Huron, the local water still contains dangerous levels of lead, and local officials are handing out water filters as they try to come up with a solution.

This emergency goes beyond simply a public health problem. (Lead is a potent neurotoxin, which can cause irreversible brain damage in children.) It is something much worse: a human rights abuse in an American city. In 2010, the United Nations declared that “ … clean drinking water … [is] essential to the realization of all human rights.” Flint’s contaminated water will prevent children from realizing their human right to health, enumerated in Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Had these basic human rights factored into the decision to switch Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, Flint’s children might never have been exposed to tainted water. What’s worse, new reports say Snyder’s office found out about the contaminated water and did nothing. For as little as $100 per day the state of Michigan could have treated the water and prevented the life-long suffering that the children of Flint are now going to experience, but instead it prioritized fiscal savings over the health and human rights of children.

This is not the first time the right to water has been ignored in Michigan. In the fall and winter of 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department made headlines for shutting off water to customers who were behind on their bills, which were higher than the national average. This was such an egregious human rights violation that the U.N. demanded the city restore water services, citing horror stories collected by U.N. staff about Detroit’s residents’ fears for the lives of their children in the face of uncertain water supplies.

Until human rights become our government’s top priority, we will continue to suffer preventable public health crises in this country.

This story, like the tainted water in Flint, reflects the actions of a government that has lost its moral center. Putting families in fear of losing their children in order to collect trivial amounts of money shows that in Michigan, health and human rights are secondary concerns. The whole point of human rights documents is to provide moral guidance to governments so they don’t lose sight of the basic needs of the citizens they represent.

It seems strange to talk about human rights violations in the United States. Human rights are a moral high ground we have claimed for ourselves, preaching to other countries about their labor and political practices, encouraging them to be more democratic and to care more for their citizens. We tend to associate human rights violations with war crimes, child labor and other terrible things we assume only happen in far-flung parts of the world.

Unfortunately, we need look no further than Michigan to see examples of human rights violations. And it’s not just Michigan. Any state where hydraulic fracture drilling, or fracking, takes place is one in which our government has put profits above human rights, since fracking has been shown to contaminate drinking water.

That said, it’s highly unlikely that human rights violations will become a part of the investigation into Flint’s water supply. Accusations of harsh business practices by the city utilities or the negligence of appointed officials are a lot easier for a politician to deflect than the idea that our government has repeatedly violated its citizens’ basic rights, putting their health in danger in the service of making or saving money. Until human rights become our government’s top priority, we will continue to suffer preventable public health crises in this country. Flint is just the beginning.

Benjamin Spoer is a Ph.D. student at NYU’s College of Global Public Health. He is interested in social and structural contributors to obesity as well as community-based solutions to public health problems.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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