The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner is one of the finest pieces of poetry in human history. It spoke of a man stuck at sea, surrounded by saline water unfit for consumption. Yet, despite the upsetting theme in the original, a modern adaptation of this poem would bring to the fore a more dystopian narrative. Just a few years ago, ‘Flint, Michigan’ was a symbol for the ‘have nots’ in American society to rally around but today, it seems to have faded from the mainstream.
Before we understand what happened on the ground, let us briefly understand why the crisis came about in the first place. According to Philip Larese-Casanova, a professor at Northeastern University, “It’s chemistry—the chemical reaction of the water and the pipes it’s flowing through.” He argues that the crisis came about since the water was not treated with anti-corrosive agents. This meant that the lead from the pipe seeped into the flowing water, rendering the entire supply toxic. Exposure to lead can be catastrophic for young populations and its effects are expected to be felt for years irrespective of whether or not the consumption of the toxic water continues.
When one looks back to understand why lead content became a problem suddenly, it becomes clear that the disaster has its roots in the decision to shift the city’s water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit to the Flint River. It took over a year for the State to take the people’s concerns seriously. The water had gone ‘bad’ as citizens complained of increasingly pungent odour. The zenith of the crisis was, undoubtedly, just how ‘yellow’ the water was. It made international headlines, but it wasn’t until 2016 that a public health emergency was declared. Worryingly, this declaration came a full year after physicians had started to complain of dangerously high blood lead levels among children.
Despite officials incorrectly and irresponsibly claiming the water was safe in 2017, the people continue to express their doubts today. The US Government is currently undertaking a project to replace all lead pipes but as of April, there are still around 2500 pipes continuing to pollute the water. The abject response to the plight of the people is a damning indictment of how unprepared we are to deal with crises’ that are man made. The failure of the State must serve as a warning. As a society, we must hold those in power accountable and ensure that there is no repetition of the catastrophe that Flint’s water crisis was.