From Flint to Gaza: Contradictory Narratives of Water, Health, and Crisis

In 2014, one American town prioritized cost-saving measures over the health of its people. The city of Flint, MI imprudently decided to trade its current drinking water system, which piped treated water from the nearby city of Detroit, to a new, familiar source: the Flint River. Inadequate treatment of this new water source prompted a deadly health crisis for the locals. The crisis persisted as government officials consistently neglected ongoing issues, despite escalating complaints about the putrid, off-tasting water supplied to Flint homes and reports of various severe health issues. Finally, two years after Flint had changed its water source,  then-President Obama spoke up about the federal government’s commitment to the residents of Flint, claiming he “will not rest until every drop of water. . . is safe to drink and cook with.” Today, many are still dealing with the lingering effects of the disaster. Fortunately, this crisis received attention, with settlements disbursed to residents and ongoing government commitment to the city’s water supply.   

The abundant government aid received by Flint during its crisis contrasts sharply with the current public health emergency unfolding in Gaza, where our government is contributing to the massacre through foreign assistance in both military and economic capacities. Specifically, since 2000, the majority of annual U.S. aid to Israel has funded military efforts, primarily in the form of maintaining and updating its missile defense system. Critically, the Palestinian people are not unfamiliar with violations against their human rights at the hands of the Israeli government. For decades, Israel has ignored obligations imposed by international and humanitarian law through the calculated denial of health resources, obstruction to healthcare access, and militant attacks on Palestinian health infrastructure. Now, in the aftermath of the initial outbreak of violence of October 7, 2023, the occupied Palestinian territory of Gaza has been the target of more relentless violence, including unlawful bombardment of healthcare facilities and obstruction of supplies for basic needs. Specifically, Israeli authorities were eager to cut innocent Gazan civilian’s access to water, medical supplies and electricity, while also maintaining full control over food deliveries into Gaza. Now, more than 96% of the water supply is unfit for consumption. The U.N. Children’s Fund expressed “the death toll will increase exponentially if incubators start to fail, if hospitals go dark, if children continue to drink unsafe water and have no access to medicine when they get sick.” The current humanitarian crisis evidently doubles as an extreme public health crisis, as Israel weaponizes basic necessities.

As those in Gaza fight to survive, one may question the absence of public outrage and intervention we witnessed from American leaders during the Flint disaster. Although the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict is happening outside our American borders, the U.S. plays an extremely integral role here. Israel has been the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid since its inception, currently valued at around $300 billion in assistance. Meanwhile, while the U.S. Government preaches its commitment to ensuring clean, safe water access as a basic human right, that same government is directly funding an Israeli military operation drastically limiting Gazans’ access to water. As of February 29, 2024, at least 100 Gazan civilians were killed or injured from Israeli bombardment while waiting desperately for food aid dispersal. The U.S. is funding this.

The catastrophe in Flint was devastating and preventable— with an estimated 140,000 individuals exposed to the bacteria-ridden water and at least 12 deaths. Thankfully, President Obama declared a national state of emergency, authorizing the government to provide necessary equipment and resources to the people affected using federal funding. Meanwhile, the death toll in Gaza currently exceeds 30,000, a number that even experts claim is more than likely an undercount, with around 70,000 civilians injured since October 7. The U.S. is not only complicit here, but is actively aiding the oppressors. In examining the stark disparity between the government aid and accountability seen with Flint’s public health emergency and the public health tragedy in Gaza, it serves as a reminder of the need for equitable and compassionate global responses to crises, irrespective of geographical boundaries or political affiliations, as well as the importance of government accountability.

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