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Water Warriors and the fight for clean, affordable water in Flint, Michigan

Ian Mevorach and David L. Wheeler

December 21, 2018

It is no accident that water imagery is central to the Christian faith. After all, water is, literally, life.  The adult human body is typically 60% water by weight. The waters of the world’s oceans, carrying dissolved minerals essential for life, flow through our veins. In the beloved Psalm 23, the Lord as our gracious shepherd leads us “beside still waters” (23:2). Beside a desert well, Jesus promises a physically and spiritually hungry woman that he will offer her “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Thus it should also be no surprise that followers of Christ make common cause with other people of good will to protect access to this this core necessity of life.

In April of 2014, people across the United States became aware of a life-threatening water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Flint, devastated by a fiscal crisis rooted in the flight of the auto industry from the city and a crash in municipal revenues, was put under an Emergency Manager by the state of Michigan. The Emergency Manager, in an attempt to cut costs, switched Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

Flint’s water had previously been treated and delivered by the Detroit Water Authority, but the City of Flint began treating the Flint River water on its own, in an old treatment plant that had been unused for decades. The treatment process was flawed, such that the Flint River water, which was by nature corrosive to pipes, became even more corrosive as it flowed into Flint’s aging water infrastructure. Crucially, the City of Flint failed to add a relatively inexpensive anti-corrosive agent to the water, which could have been done for $150 a day for the entire system, and would have presented lead and steel from leaching and flaking off the inside of pipes into the water. So in 2014, the City of Flint began delivering poisonous water to its residents, with toxic levels of lead and bacteria such as legionella, water that looked, smelled, and tasted foul. The City denied the problem for over a year, ignoring hundreds of complaints and covering up the problem with inaccurate testing procedures. Governor Rick Snyder finally acknowledged the high lead levels in the water in September of 2015.

This past September, we were part of an ecumenical coalition of environmental justice activists who visited with water justice activists from Flint and Detroit. American Baptist pastor Deb Cochran (Woodside Church, Flint) drove us through scenes of devastation and scenes of hope, including community gardens flourishing on abandoned properties. In the evening, Pastor Deb and Woodside Church hosted a meal to introduce us to local activists.

Four years since the Flint water crisis began, the water in Flint is still not safe to drink. Lead levels are still high. Even the hoses that water the community gardens still need filters on their nozzles to capture the lead. The interfaith band of water justice activists call themselves “Water Warriors,” because every day is a battle for clean and affordable water. Besides dealing with persistently high lead levels in the drinking water throughout Flint and in key facilities such as public schools in Detroit, the Water Warriors are also working against water shutoffs for the poorest and most vulnerable people in their cities.

It is counterintuitive, to say the least, but the poisonous water that the City of Flint has been delivering to residents is the most expensive water in the country; an annual water bill for a family of four in Flint can be as much as $1,000. Detroit’s water is also very expensive. Both cities suffer from high unemployment. The flight of the auto industries that built the cities, persistent joblessness, and massive population decline, have left both cities with large infrastructure costs they can no longer sustain. So shutoffs of water have reached the tens of thousands, creating further crises of health, hygiene, and human dignity.

As we had dinner with the Flint activists that Wednesday evening, we heard their stories of being harassed, stalked, and silenced. We also saw glimmers of hope: the community gardens, public art, local entrepreneurs, including garden to home food purveyors, and people – black, white and brown; longtime residents and recent immigrants – who are determined to create justice in their city. We then hosted a retreat for activists from Flint and Detroit. We have become friends and allies of the Water Warriors and have made a commitment to sharing their stories and their larger vision for water justice. 

The Water Warriors are not only fighting for their own survival, they are working for a world in which the sacredness of water is valued.

The Water Warriors are not only fighting for their own survival, they are working for a world in which the sacredness of water is valued. Mama Lila, a key leader of the People’s Water Board, is rooted in the indigenous understanding that water is life and must be shared equitably among people and all other beings which depend on it. The Great Lakes of Michigan contain twenty-two percent of the world’s fresh water. This water is in danger of being privatized and turned into a commodity by large corporations such as Nestle.

The Water Warriors are working to prevent this systematic desacralization and commodification of water from occurring. They are calling on people around the country and the world to join the struggle for the establishment of water rights as human rights, and water rights for the natural world as well. We will continue sharing the stories of the Water Warriors, presenting their points of view, and making connections with biblical stories and principles so that the church can find ways to come alongside this essential work for water justice.

Ian Mevorach is pastor of Common Street Spiritual Center, Natick, Mass. David L. Wheeler is adjunct professor of Theology, Palmer Theological Seminary, St. Davids, Pa.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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