The right of access to clean water extends even to cities in the developed world

The Irony and Tragedy of Failed City Infrastructure Laid Bare by Poor Decision-Making

Old pipes, faded records and a devil-may-care decision process

When are you gonna fix it? And I mean fix it right,” asks Hattie Collins of city and state government officials of Flint Michigan in a recent NPR report by Ari Shapiro

The task of fixing corroded water pipes after officials allowed the pipes to poison the city water supply becomes even more unsettling when experts set about measuring the scale of the problem.

In his report, Shapiro spoke with Marty Kaufman, a professor of Earth and resource science at the University of Michigan. Charged with the task of actually getting a grasp of the scale of the problem, Kaufman requested records from the city to show which homes of the 100,000 Flint residents had lead pipes, “as-builts” as they’re called in the construction and civil engineering industry.

What Kaufman was shown was a file drawer filled with 45,000 index cards, each written in pencil, noting which homes had lead or copper feeder pipes.

One of the big problems is they were written in pencil, so they were smeared quite a bit too,” Kaufman told Shapiro in his report. 

Fix the records, then fix the problem

Before anyone could even begin to really fix the problem of the poisoned water in Flint, the issues of faded, outdated deteriorating as-built records had to be fixed.

Once parcel maps are pieced together and scanned into a computer, the 1980’s era data must be “field-checked” for accuracy.

Only then can any real action begin to fix the pipes in Flint.


Laura Sullivan knows about getting clean water to communities that don’t have it.  A professor at Kettering University in Flint, Sullivan has worked on clean water projects all over the world. That expertise has suddenly been called upon by state officials.

Sullivan cares deeply about the issue of the human right for access to clean water. The tragic irony for her is that she must now address it in her own home town.

When faced with the questions of citizens like Hattie Collins –“when you gonna fix it” Sullivan struggles for an answer. In fact, there is no firm answer, but Sullivan hopes the attention the problem is getting will be the urgently needed catalyst for change.

“What I can tell you is I firmly believe that the light is shining so brightly on the city of Flint right now, that if there were any entity that had any negative or malicious reason to slow things down, there’s no way they could do that,” Sullivan says. “And if there’s any entity that has the ability to make things right, they’re being empowered to do that.”

Read or listen to Shapiro’s full report on NPR here.

Image credit: under creative commons license 

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