In the last few months, the case of toxic water in Flint, Michigan, U.S. has been displayed in different media and has caught the attention of people around the world. The problem with this toxic tap water is now a trending topic and appears on TV, radio, newspapers and in our daily conversations. However, the Flint tragedy does not represent an isolated incident. There are countless toxic drinking water disasters like Flint around the world. The majority of them are not as fully reported to the public.
In general, the toxic water problem can be due to different causes such as: (i) negligent government administrations, (ii) contamination of the water source and (iii) sanctions against countries in order to sabotage their water systems. Here, we will examine some of the most emblematic cases of toxic drinking water around the world.
St. Joseph, Louisiana, U.S. (2016)
In this city, similar to Flint, the majority of the population is Afro-American, representing 60% of the whole population. At least 40% of the town lives under the poverty line. In this case, the tap water has had high levels of iron for more than 10 years. The quality of the water is not optimal and its brown colour makes it disgusting and not healthy to drink. According to authorities, this water does not represent any risk for people to drink, but the city administrators themselves “would not drink it”.
The people of St. Joseph feel very frustrated when they see the negligence of their government and they believe that officials would have acted quicker if the majority of the city’s population were white and/or wealthy. Flint, St. Joseph and Afro-American communities around the U.S. are suffering from “environmental racism”, where the right to have clean (not toxic) water is denied to poor, working and oppressed people.
Walkerton, Ontario, Canada (2000)
The toxic Walkerton water was one of the most serious cases of water contamination in Canadian history. It happened 16 years ago in the rural heartland of Bruce County, Ontario. The community of Walkerton, with a population of less than 5,000 at the time, saw 2,300 people fall ill, and seven die.
The tragedy started in May 2000 when a dangerous strain of E. coli contaminated the water source of Walkerton due to farm runoff. The public inquiry in 2002 showed improper practices and systemic fraud by public utility operators. The privatization of municipal water testing; the absence of criteria governing the quality of testing; and the lack of provisions made for results to be published to multiple authorities; all contributed to the crisis. In addition, the inquiry report showed that if the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission had admitted to contaminated water sooner, the people who died directly from drinking the E. coli-contaminated water might have been saved.
The case of toxic water in Walkerton cannot be viewed as an isolated tragedy. It is a result of privatization and neo-liberal policies, a lack of regulation and the dismantling of public services.
The U.S. intentionally destroyed Iraq’s water supply (1996)
This merciless water attack started when the U.S. deliberately bombed Iraq’s water system during the First Gulf War. However, after the war, successive attacks against Iraqi people were carried out. The U.S. promoted sanctions against Iraq, which were adopted by the United Nations Security Council. As a result of these economic sanctions, Iraq suffered from a lack of purification chemicals, chlorinators, chemical dosing pumps, water tankers, and other equipment necessary for water purification. This impeded the Iraqi government from guaranteeing safe drinking water and this continues to affect the water system in Iraq today.
The United States knew the cost that Iraqi civilians, who were mostly children, would pay, and it went ahead anyway. Different documents have been declassified and these include information that confirms that the U.S. deliberately destroyed Iraq's water system, fully aware of the cost to civilians. One of the documents, dated January 22, 1991 is called, “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities”. The document predicts what was going to happen when the Iraqi government would no longer have all of the necessary equipment to purify the water.
Other documents discuss how the outbreaks could affect the life of children in Iraq and the development of a counter-propaganda strategy that would blame Saddam Hussein for the lack of safe water in Iraq.
This constituted a direct violation of the Geneva Convention, which states "It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population."
In Arica City in the north of Chile, high levels of mercury, lead and arsenic have been found in rivers, lakes and groundwater, which are used as drinking water sources.
The problem started 30 year ago, under the dictatorship of Pinochet, when 20,000 tons of toxic smelting waste was imported to Arica from Sweden. The Swedish mining company, Boliden had made an arrangement with the Chilean company Promel to recycle these wastes, however the project was never carried out. The waste was left unprotected on nearby abandoned lands until 1998.
From the 1990s, the Arica community has suffered from serious diseases, including cancer, miscarriages, skin conditions and respiratory problems. Medical tests have shown excessive levels of arsenic in the residents’ blood.
In September 2013, Arica victims filed a claim against Boliden Mineral, the Swedish mining company. The plaintiffs allege that Boliden acted negligently. Boliden denied the claim in its entirety. Boliden argued that the Chilean health authority and Promel were responsible for the health issues Arica citizens are facing. The Chilean Supreme Court held that the state had to compensate 365 residents from Arica.
These toxic water cases are a good indication of how the capitalist system does not care about the people's well-being and their health, and even worse, that they destroy the lives of millions of poor and working people in order to maximize their profit.
For them, profit comes before human interest. Their criminal neglect generates misery for the world’s population and is causing the destruction of our planet.
The toxic water problem is happening in different places around the world all the time. For this reason, we, the working class, poor and oppressed people must build a revolutionary movement to fight for our interests and our fundamental rights. We need a mass majority movement to end environmental degradation and the toxin producing capitalist system.
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