About a week ago, I was having a bad day. My neck was killing me, I had a migraine, my wifi was down, and I had spent over an hour working with customer service to resolve the issue. Drained, I decided to wash my dishes, eat lunch and take a nap. I went to the kitchen sink, flicked the switch on my PUR water filter and turned on the faucet.
Nothing came out. My water had been shut off.
When the water crisis hit Flint, Mich., four years ago, I kept paying my water bills. I become accustomed to unexplained rashes and minor skin irritations. I stopped taking showers longer than 10 minutes. I haven’t washed my hair at home in years because I know others who have experienced hair loss and scalp issues. And I kept paying that bill.
As time stretched on, I became more and more unwilling to pay for water I was afraid to drink or even let touch my skin. The accumulated amount had been piling up for more than six months, until it reached about $1,500. Although I felt bitter, I told myself I would mail in a check with the minimum amount to keep the water on. In the rush of the week, I had managed to mail out tax payment checks but had left the water bill check sitting on the table by my front door.
Now my water was shut off.
I headed out in the rain to the city’s water department. I’m lucky, because I have money in my account and a working car with gas in the tank. With about 30 minutes to close of business, I ran inside to pay my minimum fee. At the counter, the employee told me (in a very practiced, neutral tone) my earliest reconnection would be in a week. Again, I am fortunate: I can afford a hotel; I can stay with family in a nearby suburb; I don’t have small children or any medical condition that requires daily access to running water.
I stayed overnight with an aunt in an affluent, majority-white suburb outside Flint, with plans to call the water department in the morning to raise some hell for an earlier reconnection date. The next morning, I filled a glass of water from her kitchen sink and drank greedily. I brushed my teeth with water straight from the faucet. (At home, I keep a glass of filtered water on the bathroom sink for that.) When I showered, the water was soft, and my soap lathered quickly. My skin felt smooth in a way to which I was not accustomed. My aunt reminded me I could come by anytime I wanted a nice long bath or to wash my hair.
My water did get reconnected early, but I am still angry and tired when I think about that day.
A few days later, the state of Michigan announced it was ending bottled-water distribution in Flint, four days after it approved Nestlé’s permit to pump 500,000 gallons of freshwater per day from its well in the state. Nestlé will pay $200 annually for this permit. Nestlé is taking advantage of the fact there are no strict regulations in Michigan for water that is below ground; it is not really considered a public trust, and so the state has no explicit rules to protect it for the people like it does for surface waters.
For years, Flint residents have been lining up to get packs of Ice Mountain bottled water for cooking and bathing and drinking while a Swiss corporation has a giant straw sucking freshwater out of the ground in Michigan for next to nothing.
I was born in Flint. I pay my taxes. I always paid the ridiculously high water bills, with rates close to 20 percent above those in nearby cities such as Detroit.
Ever since Flint residents began raising concerns about the discolored, odd-smelling water coming out of their taps in 2014, the city and state have done a shoddy job of communicating with city residents, at times denying there was a problem and disputing parents, community organizers, scientists and doctors who insisted there were high levels of lead in the water that were poisoning kids. Lawmakers displayed derision and contempt for working-class communities of color. The emergency management laws passed earlier, which put decisions about where and how to source Flint’s drinking water in the hands of a financial manager, carried the implicit assumption that majority-black cities and neighborhoods were incapable of self-governance. Even before that, state and local health departments struggled to understand social health disparities based on race and income and how to effect change without reinforcing oppressive and racist systems. All of this played out in policy and procedures during this water crisis in Flint.
My water lines were replaced, but I am still waiting for reports from two water studies. My annual water bill is nine times as high as what Nestlé pays, and Nestlé bottles that water and sells it to people nationwide - who raise money to buy packs of it and donate it to Flint residents.
Nestlé did not cause this crisis, but its actions raise questions that cannot be ignored. What are the basic things humans have a right to in their own communities? How much control of essential natural resources are we willing to leave in the hands of private corporations?
What does the government owe us now? The governor gambled with our health for years, and we should not be left to grapple alone with unforeseen costs of exposure to contaminated water. For some families, it might be years before their children exhibit the behavioral and health effects of lead poisoning. Any Flint resident who lived through this crisis deserves health care for life, regardless of income. A no-shut-off policy and a cap on water bills would be good steps. No private corporate entity should own a freshwater source for profit when taxpayers are still paying dearly for dangerous water.
As a songwriter and performer, I have had a chance to tour nationally and internationally over the past year. I have met hundreds of people along the way who have heard about Flint and want to talk to me about my home town. It is heartening to see people care and are starting to align around the idea that a minimum quality of life is a basic right. I will not claim to be a policy expert, but I know access to clean water is something every person in this country deserves. Nobody living through this crisis in Flint deserves a shut-off for refusing to pay for polluted water.
Tunde Olaniran is a singer, songwriter and performance artist based in Flint, Mich.