Broken Pipes

Stroll into someone’s home in most cities in the world, and they may offer you something to drink, but it will not likely be tap water. A startling infographic produced in 2014 from data by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that tap water was only fit for consumption by non-locals in six countries and territories in Asia. There are no countries or territories in Africa or South America where non-locals can safely drink from the tap.

Of course, locals in many places may drink their own piped water and be just fine, thanks to an acquired immunity to unfiltered contaminants. But many prefer not to take the risk, and those who can afford it will opt for bottled water or home filtration systems. More than one in 10 people around the world, however, completely lack access to safe water sources, according to UNICEF.

Very recently, residents of Flint, Mich. could count themselves as part of that statistic, and not because they could not buy bottled water, but because they did not know they should. Flint dominated U.S. headlines last year as a shocking example of infrastructure failure in a country unaccustomed to such stories, after the city’s drinking water was found to be contaminated with unsafe levels of lead. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause irreversible brain and nervous system damage, particularly in children. As many as 40 percent of Flint’s 690,000 residents were exposed over the past two years—including as many as 8,000 children—after the city switched from Detroit’s treated Lake Huron water to water from the Flint River, which corroded the city’s pipes and caused lead to leach into the water supply.

The U.S. population has quadrupled since most of its water systems were built. This takes a toll on infrastructure that was built to serve far fewer people than it currently does.

The switch was a political decision made in April 2014 by Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager in a bid to save money in the shrinking, economically depressed municipality. It was intended as a stop-gap solution while Flint built its own pipeline to Lake Huron and was expected to save the city $200 million over 25 years. But when children started showing elevated levels of lead in blood tests, Michigan officials denied there were problems with the water. Some even went so far as to tamper with lead-testing evidence to cover up the problem.

The story is an example of how failures in infrastructure often happen at the intersection of politics and policy—and how these failures are not just a so-called “developing world problem.”

A water system is the single largest infrastructure investment a community will make, says Glen Daigger, professor of engineering practice in the University of Michigan’s department of civil and environmental engineering. He notes that public spending on systems that handle drinking, waste and storm water surpass spending on schools, roads, parks, or any other class of public infrastructure in the U.S.

Many water systems in use in the U.S. are a century old, says Daigger. While many still function adequately enough, 100-year-old systems require upkeep, and upkeep requires continual investment. “Those investments need to be made over a long period of time to maintain infrastructure at a good functioning level,” he notes. This is especially true given that the U.S. population has quadrupled since most of its water systems were built, according to data by the U.S. Census. This takes a toll on infrastructure that was built to serve far fewer people than it currently does.

Need and Neglect

Surging population growth puts a strain on public infrastructure budgets in many parts of the world, particularly the Global South. But unlike the situation in most developing economies, current infrastructure deficits in the U.S. are more often the result of poor upkeep than insufficient upfront investment. “We’re not very good as a country at going back and fixing things,” says Daigger. “Somehow we think that once we’ve paid for something, we have it forever.”

Khalid Kadir, a lecturer in international and area studies and at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Engineering is more outspokenly cynical. “We have this horrible national infrastructure—bridges that are falling down, water pipes that are exploding and leaking waste into our waterways. Part of it is because we're so spread out and part is because we're not really interested in investing in these things anymore,” he says.

Poor rural communities tend to fare the worst in this respect. As an example, Kadir compares California’s Central Valley communities—notably, the unincorporated Latino communities, which are a hub for agricultural workers—with that of Flint. In the Central Valley, he says, nitrates and arsenic contaminate drinking water sources, but because the problem is spread across a more diffuse population than Flint, it does not get the same attention. Even if it did, communities in the Central Valley are too cash-strapped to readily fix the problem themselves. There are federal resources available, but the application process and requirements for securing them are difficult, if not prohibitive.

The policy maze

In the U.S., public drinking water is governed by both federal and state laws. The principle federal law, the Safe Drinking Water Act passed by Congress in 1974, authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create and enforce regulations to achieve the Act’s goals. The EPA sets standards for drinking water quality and has universal jurisdiction over the states, localities and water suppliers implementing those standards.

The EPA is also responsible for overseeing the implementation of two State Revolving Funds, or SRFs, which are federal loan funds meant to help states pay for their water systems. To qualify for financing, each state has to develop and submit to the EPA an “Intended Use Plan,” which is a list of water projects, in order of priority, for which the state needs a loan.

The EPA delegates authority to the states in terms of who is eligible to propose projects for SRFs, so the rules vary widely across the country. In Hawaii, for example, only county governments can apply for SRFs, whereas in California, local governments can also apply for them, which widens the potential number of applicants and spreads the potential liability of a community that is unable to repay its loan.

Federal money allotted for infrastructure loans sits in the bank unspent, because low-income
communities cannot or will not take on the debt.

California’s SRF policy might seem more egalitarian than a place like Hawaii, but in reality, many poor communities simply do not make bids for SRFs. “If you take out a loan, you have to have some sort of income to pay it back, and county taxes only go so far,” says an EPA official who requested anonymity for this article. “That plays a part in low-income communities not [applying] for such funds, and so pots of money just sit in the bank because the community can’t or won’t take on any more debt.”

Complications with SRFs could be playing a part in St. Joseph, La., a town of 1,100 residents where water the color of chocolate milk has been running from the taps for the past several years. The town’s water infrastructure is over 90 years old and cracks have allowed iron to seep into the water supply. But federal funds to address the problem are being withheld until St. Joseph’s mayor turns in a mandatory financial audit.

Technically, there's no problem

Often where public services do not or cannot fill a need, either the private sector or the communities themselves will try to find solutions. Kadir notes that there are many models at play, in the U.S. and abroad, for private infrastructure development and management. There are examples in the U.S. of private utilities managing and running infrastructure that is community-owned, for instance. In other parts of the world, socially driven entrepreneurs have built businesses around fulfilling unmet community needs, like Sarvajal, in India, which installs pay-as-you-go drinking water ATMs that are locally owned and operated.

But Kadir cautions that communities should be skeptical of private sector intentions. “[Most of] these questions about privatization usually come from the idea of private businesses [doing] things more efficiently. They do that by cutting out people who aren't profitable,” he says.

Of course, the residents of Flint could reasonably argue that their public representatives treated their health and well-being with a similar level of irreverence. Officials in Flint made a decision about a functioning but costly water system as a band-aid to the city’s financial crisis. And whether out of ignorance, negligence, or insufficient resources, experts agree that they did not do the necessary logistical or environmental due diligence, with devastating results.

“We’ve been doing this kind of treatment for 100 years. In a water treatment plant, the first thing you do is adjust the chemistry so the water is not corrosive. That should have been known by everyone involved [with the disaster],” says Daniele Lantagne, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts University.

“The story is not just about failing infrastructure—it is also a political [story],” she adds. “It is the sort of thing we hear about corrupt governments in other parts of the world, not the U.S.”

Worryingly, the problem may extend well beyond Flint: an investigation by the Guardian found that over the past decade, at least 33 U.S. cities used testing methods that could underestimate the amount of lead found in drinking water, despite warnings from regulators and experts.

That politics are often so intertwined in infrastructure decisions is the reason both successes and failures cannot be viewed through a technical lens exclusively, says Kadir. “That story, from a technical standpoint, doesn't really tell us what's happening. The social story tells us a lot more.”

Adrienne Day

Adrienne is a writer, editor and New York native. She has written for The New York Times, New York magazine, the Village Voice, SSIR and Wired and has worked as an editor at EW and Spin magazines.

Berkeley, CA