Evaluating SDG 6: Flint, Michigan and Where the US Stands on Water Quality
By Kayleigh Thompson, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow
It’s been a little over six years since news of the Flint water crisis made headlines across the US. Since the 2014 decision to use the Flint river as the main water source for the city of Flint, Michigan, lead contamination leading to water quality below the EPA standard has jeopardized general public health and sanitation, agriculture, and industrial development for city residents. The ongoing crisis has not only sparked outrage towards the negligence of Michigan officials, but has put a spotlight on US water quality in a time of heightened global sustainability awareness.
We are a little less than 10 years away from 2030, the deadline for meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In a society faced with the looming threat of climate change, sustainability has become more important than ever in ensuring the health of our planet and access to key resources for human survival. In the last decade there has been a dramatic rise in the severity of natural disasters, extreme temperatures, oil spills, and increasing contamination of key resources, like water.
Before the global outbreak of COVID-19, 2.2 billion people lacked access to clean drinking water, and 4.5 billion lacked access to basic sanitation. SDG 6 aims to achieve universal access to safe, high quality public drinking water, equitable sanitation levels across regions, decrease pollutant levels in water and increase water efficiency by 2030. As of 2019, achieving high water quality and sanitation facilities for all people is not on track to be achieved by 2030, with a funding gap for achieving the goal of almost 61% in some nations and the demand for water expected to see an increase of 50% by 2025. As seen from the water crisis of Flint, as well as poor water quality standards in other major cities, the United States is among the many nations who have yet to achieve SDG 6, and based on current water quality crises, they have a long way to go.
What Happened in Flint?
The water crisis in Flint is only one of the instances of lead contamination in America’s water sources. The 2014 crisis began with the decision to switch Flint, Michigan’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River, citing lower costs. Upon the switch, the City of Flint also ceased corrosion control treatments to regulate lead and copper levels in the river. In the 2015 memo by the EPA Ground Water and Drinking Water Regulations Manager Miguel A. Dol Toral, the City of Flint was accused of violating the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) between August 2014 and June 2015 on account of lead and copper levels detected to be well above the national standard in public drinking water. In October, 2015, residents were advised to stop consuming water from their homes and a state of emergency was declared on December 14th of that same year.
Residents of Flint depended on emergency aid, including water brought in from other regions of the state, and faced increased lead levels not only in their homes, but also in their blood. After realizing the effect of the increased contamination of the water, threatening public sanitation and industrial development, the EPA issued an emergency order in 2016 followed by the city receiving FEMA relief and President Obama declaring a national emergency.
The crisis resulted in a switch back to DWDS, increasing corrosion control for the Flint River, a probe of State policy, multiple resignations, and a criminal lawsuit against three officials for negligence. As of 2020, Michigan has agreed to pay victims of the Flint Water Crisis $600 million, and a multiyear project to repair the corroded and contaminated pipes in Flint has reached its final phase, with less than 2,500 homes still in need of pipe replacement. The project, originally promised to be completed by January 2020, was postponed due to COVID-19, drawing into question the consequences of decreased sanitation access during a pandemic, as residents still faced poor access to clean water while waiting for the pipe replacements to be completed.
The health effects of the exposure to lead contaminated water, particularly in children, are still being realized, with protests and lawsuits against the states numbering in the thousands. What happened in Flint has not only shed light on the consequences of government negligence, but has also drawn into question US water quality as a whole, especially against the backdrop of achieving the SDGs.
Zooming Out: Reflecting on US Water Quality
The United States has recorded greater than 90% of the population as having access to safely managed drinking water between 2005 and 2015. However given the size of the United States and incidents like Flint, a closer inspection proves that not all is up to par with SDG standards.
The 2019 US City Development Report, which takes a list of 103 major US cities and evaluates their progress towards achieving the SDGs, takes a closer look at water quality in the US. The report for SDG 6 identifies that at least 29 of the 103 cities have poor or poor to moderate performance in regards to water quality and sanitation, with only three cities rated as having good performance, indicating that US water quality issues stem beyond Flint, Michigan.
Not only are areas across the American Southwest facing future water scarcity due to increased temperatures, severe droughts, and fires, water contamination in Urban areas is also an issue that is becoming increasingly relevant in recent years. Washington, DC faced its own major lead crisis in 2004, in which over 6,000 residents reported lead water levels higher than the EPA standard. The spike in lead levels resulted in a massive undertaking of replacing DC’s lead-lined pipe system, with 23,000 pipes replaced by 2010. As of 2016, DC is still facing lawsuits related to this lead crisis. While lead levels in DC drinking waters have decreased as of the 2020 water quality report, harmful contaminants in the water, such as arsenic, were still detected to be above what organizations like the Environmental Working Group consider safe.
Other cities, like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Newark, NJ have also had lead contamination issues, with failures to report the dangers of lead and recording lead levels that are above the EPA standard. Other chemicals like radium and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), as well as pollutants like perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and crude MCHM have been found in Texas, Florida, West Virginia, and New York. All of these substances are harmful to human health, with the potential to cause cancer, rashes, vomiting, or increased contaminant levels in the bloodstream. While water is generally acceptable across the US, clean water has a more muddled track record. A history of chemical spills, water pollution, and high contamination levels in many major water sources have had a clear impact on US cities, affecting sanitation and public health.
Water quality can be directly linked to poverty levels across a community. Urban areas demonstrate the “most pronounced” forms of inequality, and when the water quality is threatened, these communities are the hit hardest. Poor access to clean water can reflect increased economic poverty, poorer health, and less access to public services and education. Experts on SDG development have widely reported that achieving one goal can lead to positive “ripple-effects” across the other goals, as having access to one resource goal can be directly linked to another, such as water quality and poverty reduction.
Moving Forward: Achieving SDG 6 in the United States
So how do we achieve high standards of water quality and sanitation? One aspect includes transparency about water quality. As with Flint, and with other cities like Pittsburgh and Milwuake, contamination levels in water sources are often kept from the public, meaning residents are often unaware of what is in the water they’re drinking. To combat this, activist organizations like the Environmental Working Group have spoken out against government transparency and updating water quality standards.
Additionally, urban water quality standards are defined by what the poorest communities experience. Ensuring a high water quality for the most impoverished is the only way to bring the level of water quality up as a whole. As laid out by the UN, understanding an area’s water-based needs, whether for agriculture, sanitation, or basic consumption, is key to incorporating SDG 6 policies into national planning strategies. It is essential to take into account the local contexts that each water crisis occurs in and to target these issues individually with sustainable methods that prevent a relapse.
Water quality in most places, especially in the US, is also underpinned by financial constraints. The UN has consistently called for increased international funding, but also lays out methods to incorporate funding for water-based services within each area’s budget and through innovative forms of financial planning, such as multi-stakeholder partnerships. Public participation in this planning is another essential component to increasing water quality and sanitation measures not only in the US, but globally.
Achieving SDG 6 will become increasingly difficult due to increased aridity, water scarcity and demand, and industrial pollution. Along with the added challenges of COVID-19, sanitation standards require more access to clean water. Despite being a leader in achieving SDGs, the United States must still grapple with meeting these challenges and ensuring clean, safe, water for all of its citizens. The existence of contaminants in major water sources and a lack of action to combat poor water quality only increases the harm done by income poverty, food accessibility, and general public health. A country is only as advanced as its most impoverished communities, and we must be fully cognizant of this fact as we get closer to the 2030 deadline.