Articles Mast

From Draft NOtices, April-June 2016

Water Crises, Environmental Racism and the U.S. Department of Defense

— Jesus D. Mendez Carbajal

In March 1977 the United Nations deemed water an essential human right, stating that “All peoples, whatever their stage of development and social and economic conditions, have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic needs.” This is rightly concluded given that the human body is made up of 60-70% water, and lack of access to potable and clean water is potentially life-threatening. Despite this UN declaration, the 2013 United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation website states that “there are still an approximate 780 million people who do not have access to water and 2.5 billion people who do not have access to adequate sanitation.” The 2013 UN Water website goes further by stating that “~3.5 planets Earth would be needed to sustain a global population achieving the current lifestyle of the average European or North American.”

A 2014 report by Environmental America found that the Department of Defense (DoD) is the third highest polluter of waterways, a serious concern given that the DoD has hundreds of bases all over the world. This is one of several red flags pointing out how the global capitalist system is not a sustainable, equitable, or reciprocal socioeconomic model of organization or life.

Flint, Michigan, is one of many global communities that has faced water pollution issues. Others include the state of Virginia, Washington, D.C., the Dine (Navajo) Nation, different countries across Africa, and possibly many more in the years to come given aging water infrastructure, lack of access to clean and potable water, and climate change. The current situation in Flint, a largely Black/African-American, working-class and poor community, is a multilayered issue that affects low-income people, with disproportionate impact on Black Flint residents and their families. What happened in Flint demonstrates the limits of U.S. government (local, state and federal) and the racist, nativist, classist, and sexist views held by its leadership and representatives. In December of 2015 the situation was declared a state of emergency by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, and then by President Obama on January 14, 2016.

The issue of Flint’s lead-contaminated water began in April 2014 after Governor Rick Snyder appointed an “Emergency Manager” in an effort to save money. The Emergency Manager pushed for the shift in water supply from Lake Huron, under the jurisdiction of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, to the Flint River. The crisis was facilitated when Flint officials refused to pay $100/day for the necessary chemicals to treat the highly corrosive Flint River water, which was affected by the leaking of lead from decades-old water pipes into the water supply. It was not until October 2015, after several warning signs since the switch in April 2014, that Governor Snyder declared the water undrinkable.

Among the estimated 100,000 affected, a group having added challenges are Spanish-only speakers with no access to translated information on the crisis. There are also an estimated 1,000 undocumented immigrant Flint residents who are unable to acquire the government-issued identifications that are sometimes requested as a condition to receive free bottled water and filters. Their access to aid was further limited by fears triggered recently by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and subsequent deportations.

The independent and appointed Flint Water Advisory Task Force has concluded that a significant share of responsibility for the pollution crisis lies with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, but that the “ultimate accountability” rests with Governor Snyder. Further, the introductory letter to the report states that “though it may be technically true that all levels of government failed, the state’s responsibilities should not be deflected. The causes of the crisis lie primarily at the feet of the state by virtue of its agencies’ failures and its appointed emergency managers’ misjudgments.”

In closing, there is much more to be said, analyzed, linked and expanded on regarding water issues, environmental racism, the role of the DoD in local water pollution and intersectional injustices. Questions remain around the sustainability of modernity, globalizing capitalism and the privilege of the “American (also read as Western) Way of Life.” To echo the autonomous indigenous communities of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, how do we build a world where many worlds fit? A world and a reality where equity is a tangible reality and gains and privileges are not increased at the cost of human dignity and life?

Information sources:

The Human Right to Water and Sanitation Milestones,

2013 United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation: Facts and Figures,

“The Department of Defense Is the Third Largest Polluter of US Waterways,” http://www.truth-out.org, February 15, 2016.

“Undocumented immigrants in Flint say they’re denied water,”, January 25, 2016.

“Flint Water Crisis: Independent Investigators Say State Officials Are Mostly To Blame,”, March 23, 2016.

“Flint Water Advisory Task Force Final Report,” March 21, 2016,

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


About Us - Articles - Draft NOtices - Youth - Militarism - Publications -Links - Contact - Home