'By the waters of Flint, we sat and wept'

by Erik Lenhart

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Less than a week after his State of the Union address, President Obama has declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, Mich., because of contaminated drinking water. Since April 2014, Flint residents have allegedly been drinking toxic tap water while under the impression that the water was safe to drink. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder issued apologies, made requests for urgent aid, and affirmed a comparison between Flint's crisis and Hurricane Katrina.

The comparison is apt. Granted, Katrina was a natural disaster. But the devastation Katrina wrought was a consequence of human error: inadequate evacuation plans, construction flaws that doomed levees to failure, delayed emergency response. Flint's emergency was likewise foreseeable and preventable.

Sadly, this latest crisis confirms the observations of Pope Francis, who writes in Laudato Si',

One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. (LS 29)

When I first read this description of water scarcity and pollution, I imagined areas of famine and drought in countries that lack the infrastructure and stability to provide clean water to its people. It's hard to believe that the pope's description applies directly to Flint, a city in a state that borders the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet.

As concerns about water quality emerged after Flint switched its water source to the saltier Flint River, which caused lead to leach from older pipes and into the water in people's homes, Michigan state officials reportedly minimized residents' complaints while touting the millions of dollars the city was saving. In the abundance of our country, it is a sad indictment that water, the foundation of creation, can be monetized alongside other line items at the expense of the disempowered. When a resource indispensable for human life is compromised, the poor are the first to suffer. When our government, whose responsibility is to promote the common welfare, is contaminated by austerity, thrift or greed, the vulnerable pay the cost.

One of Pope Francis' stated goals in Laudato Si' is to illustrate "the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet" (LS 16). A U.S. Census report states that over 40 percent of Flint's residents live below the poverty line, making it the second most poverty stricken city in the U.S. behind Youngstown, Ohio. The crisis in Flint is a painful reminder that even in a land of abundant resources, there are still many without access to clean water.  

Calling civil authorities to a moral accounting, Pope Francis expands the expense side of the ledger:

Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. (LS 30)

In the days to come, our country will respond to the water crisis in Flint with acts of charity and words of indignation. I hope that Flint's crisis will baptize our moral imagination and saturate our efforts to hear the cry of the poor and thirsty of our human family in distant lands.

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