Nakiya Wakes, a Flint, Michigan, resident, spoke calmly as she addressed a workshop during the 28th Annual Conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) held in Flint in early October, but there was no mistaking the sadness and anger reflected in her story.
As of Oct. 6, Flint had gone more than 1600 days without access to safe tap water. In April 2014, when Flint was under the rule of a state-imposed emergency manager, the city switched from Lake Huron water to Flint River water, allegedly as a cost-saving measure. The result was water contaminated with lead and chemicals and Legionella bacteria, among other things. Flint residents warned officials for months that something was wrong with the water, but they were ignored. Though Gov. Rick Snyder and city officials earlier this year claimed that the water is now safe, people in Flint still don’t trust the water or the government.
In a workshop titled, “Flint to the World: Water is a Human Right,” Nakiya told a heart-rending story that she said is one of many in Flint. The water left her two children with high levels of lead, “and their lives changed forever.” Beyond this, she had two miscarriages. In both cases she was carrying twins. “Twice I felt the lives inside me end because someone else decided that Flint residents had no right to clean, safe and affordable water, so we drank what we had, which turned out to be deadly. . .So when people argue that access to clean, safe, affordable water is not a human right, I ask them, what right do you have to take away one of the most basic survival requirements from someone else? Who are you to decide who gets to live or die?”
Another Flint resident in the audience, Laura MacIntyre, noted the damage done to Flint and Michigan by the emergency manager law, and said the law “needs to be eliminated in all its forms.” She also said that at least 15 current or former state or city officials have been charged with crimes related to the Flint crisis and are undergoing trial, “and we need to follow those cases and make sure they’re not dismissed, and we need more pressure so more people are charged. Snyder needs to be held accountable.”
Nakiya pointed out that Flint residents are being forced to pay water bills that are eight times the national average, for water they can’t use. The state stopped distributing free water in Flint last April, after the tap water was declared “safe” with the use of a filter. Local private help centers distribute bottled water for free, but the supply may run out while you’re waiting in line, Nakiya said, and many people can’t afford to buy their own bottled water or pay the high bills for tap water. The result, she said, is “your contaminated water is shut off, which can lead to foreclosure of your home, serious illness, shame, and so much more.”
Nakiya continued: “I have children, I can’t just give up. I will keep fighting until they get justice. I will fight until they get Gov. Snyder. If I was governor, being African American, I would have been charged. Everyone needs to be held accountable. A mayor of Detroit was locked up for 20 years for embezzlement, but there have been 13 deaths in Flint, and no one has been incarcerated. I’ve lost children behind this; these people should be incarcerated.”