Introduction: Re-politicizing water allocation

Tom Perreault, Rutgerd Boelens, Jeroen Vos

Research output: Chapter in Book/Entry/PoemChapter

5 Scopus citations


Flint Who poisoned Flint? This question, easy to ask but harder to answer, draws attention to the complex of political and economic institutions, processes, social relations and hydraulic infrastructures involved in urban water governance. Flint, Michigan, a city of 100,000 people northwest of Detroit, is a city in decline. Like other cities and towns in the US “rust belt,” Flint’s landscape is marked by abandoned, decaying factories, brownfields (urban spaces too polluted for redevelopment) and crumbling infrastructure. Flint was the founding place of General Motors, which still operates a plant there. Industry downsizing sacked thousands of workers in the 1980s, driving the city’s poverty rate up sharply. De-industrialization and population loss have left the city with a diminished tax base, which barely covers operating costs for basic city services, much less for environmental cleanup and infrastructure upgrades. Some 40 percent of the city’s population lives below the federal poverty line, and city residents, some 52 percent of whom are African-American, had experienced more than their share of problems when, in 2014, they were confronted with another: poisoned water. Prior to that year, Flint received its drinking water from Detroit’s water system, which in turn drew from Lake Huron, part of North America’s Great Lakes system. Flint had plans to connect to a new water pipeline, to be completed in 2016 or 2017, which would provide Lake Huron water directly, at lower cost. As a further cost-saving measure, in April 2014, Flint’s governor-appointed Emergency Manager decided that the city should no longer draw water from Detroit’s system, and should instead begin drawing water from the Flint River, which flows through the city. Like many waterways in and around rust belt cities, the Flint River is acutely contaminated by decades of industrial waste and lax regulation, as well as municipal waste seepage from aging sewer systems (cf. Perreault et al., 2012). As early as August 2014, drinking water tests showed elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Residents were instructed to boil water and the city began treating the water system with chlorine. Between June 2014 and November 2015, Flint also experienced an outbreak of legionnaires’ disease, which eventually claimed the lives of ten people.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationWater Justice
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)9781316831847
ISBN (Print)9781107179080
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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