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Water: it makes up 60 percent of adult bodies, and 71 percent of the planet’s surface. The average American uses 70 to 80 gallons of it everyday, and the strongest of humans can only survive three days without it.

We learn these simple facts about water at a young age, but so often take it for granted —  it is, after all, the most essential of molecules; no living being can survive without it, except, ironically, water bears. For the rest of us non-tardigrades, water is a necessity and a UN and US-recognized human right.

So when stories like Flint Michigan’s water crisis surface, it may seem mind-boggling that the contamination of drinking water could go unnoticed and unfixed long enough to result in a federal state of emergency. But when you examine the conditions in which clean water is compromised, it begins to make more sense: poverty and dirty drains often go hand in hand. This is true in the case of Flint, a city plagued by poverty and neglect.

Water inequality

There is a clear correlation between safe drinking water and gross domestic per capita. Wealthier countries and communities have better access to clean water, and use more of it, too. In a day in age where water can be located on Mars by space probes, 780 million people don’t have access to clean water. Most of them live in developing countries in regions like Africa and the Middle East.

The residents of Flint, Michigan live in one of the most advanced nations in the world, in one of its poorest cities. Due to the state’s financial crisis, the state treasury decided to switch Flint’s water supply to switch from Detroit to the highly polluted Flint River in 2014. Water treatment ceased, and complaints of foul, discolored liquid was repeatedly ignored. Concerns were even rebuffed when GM opted out of purchasing Flint’s water because — get this — it was ruining their equipment.

“The sad, outrageous reality is that people were not paying attention to what the residents were saying because they weren’t a priority,” Michigan’s Senator Debbie Stabenow told me recently in an exclusive Yahoo News video. “[The state] would react differently when their friends that lived in those areas called … that’s just a fact that [Flint was] treated differently than others would be treated.” Stabenow also believes race was a likely factor.

“The sad, outrageous reality is that people were not paying attention to what the residents were saying because they weren’t a priority.”

This neglect allowing lead from aging pipes to leach into the supply, culminating in lead poisoning among other severe health issues. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead, which may lead to a host of serious health problems — potentially including Legionnaires disease, which has killed 10 and affected 77 to date.

America is not immune to these issues, in part because America is not immune to poverty. It’s no coincidence, then, that Flint has the second-highest poverty rate in America.

Truth be told, you’d be much harder pressed to find brown water than brown people in rich, white neighborhoods like Beverly Hills — even though, in theory, all government-provided water should be treated equally. Surely, there is no wealth limit for basic public health and government protection thereof. And yet, these choices were made to save $5 million at the time — even though $80 million would later be needed in aid.

Thanks in part to these decisions and faulty engineering, Flint residents have been bathing in, cooking with and drinking water containing lead at 866 times the legal limit. As I explain in another recent Yahoo video, residents developed rashes, hair loss and other health ailments because of it. These residents want accountability, and many are calling for  Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation.

The bigger picture

Globally, access to clean water and sanitation has been improving. But when poor regions in the US are exposed to poisoned systems under the watch of the government as the result of ideological policy decisions, something is not right.

If we are to reject policies that allow upwards mobility for poorer Americans, cities like Flint will continue to be considered “sacrifice zones” for governments that lack the incentive or funds to prioritize public health. Flint shows that when cutting government costs, it’s often the poorest citizens — the one’s can afford to move — that get trapped.

Lead poisoning is certainly not limited to Flint; in fact, it’s prevalent in inner cities across America, one can assume for largely the same reasons: government incompetence, certainly, but also money, or the lack thereof. Dirty water is just one visual representation of America’s wealth gap, where at the bottom there is not only a monetary deficit, but in water, clean environment, and nutrition. These health inequalities have been shown to correlate with cognitive and developmental inequalities, as well as criminal behavior.

“Make it your business to know what’s in your backyard and what’s coming out of your tap.”

Flint’s crisis is a reminder to make sure our own water is safe to drink. In an interview with environmental activist Erin Brockovich, she suggested three tips to making sure your own water is clean: “When you see a change to your water, don’t be afraid to speak up about it,” she advises. “Make it your business to know what’s in your backyard and what’s coming out of your tap.”

In a nutshell, what’s most important is “awareness, information, asking questions, getting a hold of your water quality report and knowing what it means.”

After all, if water is toxic enough to erode GM car parts, what is it doing to a child’s brain? We’ve explored all this water, from the Earth’s inner mantle to Mars. So why can’t we get a faucet running clear in a state surrounded by fresh water lakes?

Flint’s water crisis and the wider association — globally and nationally — between health, environment, and wealth demonstrate how the gap between rich and poor runs deeper than our pockets. Clean water is a right, period, and even a flood of corporate donations after the fact can’t make up for damage done.

A majority of Americans will always be dependent on government for important basics like infrastructure, environmental safety and water sanitation. It therefore is essential we keep the public sector strong and accountable — willing and able to protect its people — to keep our neighbors from drowning in filth, or beholden to water bottles forevermore.

Featured image: Jenny Lee Silver via Flickr