by Emily Johnson
You wake up to sun through your bedroom window, realizing the room is warm, even hot. Your legs feel sticky from sweat. Your eyes are sticky, too, from sleep. It feels as though the ceiling fan only pushes heat around in circles. To the AC panel you go.
You squint, fidget with the rubber buttons, and manage to set the temperature below 70 degrees. You open the window for now and breathe outside, in. But you are still hot, still sticky, and what you want more than fresh air right now, is water.
You go to the sink, without a second thought, and pull the lever in the diagonal direction of ‘cold.’
What comes from the lake or the ocean or the river, filtering through whole reclamation plants, through systems and tanks and pipes and engineering, is this steady stream of water. The sound is as immediate as the pull of your hand on the lever, the mouth of the spout is brimming and you will drink fresh water, for the umpteenth thousandth day of your life.
It is April of 2017. And Flint, Michigan, still does not have clean water.
As often as we fill our glasses this statement can be heard passing through college classrooms and Facebook Vox videos, one year and four months into the city-sanctioned State of Emergency.
I write this Flint, Michigan, still does not have clean water from my Chicago apartment, 285 miles from the City of Flint Water Plant. What would be a 4-hour-and-28-minute drive. A drive I have not taken. A drive the majority of us have not taken. Because for most of us in the US, water just is. It’s always there, constant and dependable. It astonishes us that lead could be allowed to poison this community of almost 100,000 at all, let alone that once discovered, it would continue for so long. Still, it’s not long before the breaking story is no longer astonishing, and news becomes commonplace. Activism is endurance.
President Peter Gleick of the Californian nonprofit Pacific Institute, dedicated to global water accessibility, writes that “we currently use on the order of 960 cubic miles (4,000 cubic kilometers) of freshwater a year, and overall there’s enough water to go around. [However,] there is increasing regional scarcity.”
Flint is surrounded by the Great Lakes, which hold one-fifth of Earth’s fresh water surface—in other words, 6 quadrillion gallons of water. This seems far from a regional scarcity, yet the system is not in place to harness and utilize this necessary resource to sustain life. What Gleick notes is that there is enough freshwater for all, but it is a matter of ensuring the proper systems for access and availability to specific communities (whether regional or otherwise).
It is a 21-hour-and-ten-minute journey, flying and driving, from Flint’s Water Plant to Diori Hamani International Airport in Niger’s capital, Niamey. Across mountain ranges and vast ocean, still entire communities go without sanitary water, experiencing a scarcity that need not exist. Niger borders the Sahara Desert and, coupled with scarce rainfall, the result is a startling 64% of rural Nigeriens without adequate access to clean water. However, drilling localized wells harnesses the existing water underfoot. Drilling wells is not simply symbolic for tapping potential—in this case, accessing what is available allows entire communities the inherent right to sustained health, the inherent right to take care of oneself and each other, the inherent right to work and play and thrive. The inherent right to access what is available a couple hundred feet below the earth’s surface.