Coaxing trust from the tap

Each time someone turns on the faucet and it fails, the social contract between citizen and government is broken a bit more. How can we move forward?

Jake May/The Flint Journal/AP
Connie Edwards holds a protest sign outside Genesee County Circuit Court in Flint, Michigan, July 13, 2021.

Say I asked you to do a quick word association with the noun water. Would your first response be trust? 

Maybe not. But that’s what’s fortified each day that you turn on the tap and get clean water. And that’s what erodes – along with a sense of governmental accountability and justice – if that turn of the faucet regularly delivers something you wouldn’t bathe in, let alone drink. Perhaps the water routinely needs to be boiled. Perhaps it flows only intermittently, forcing a daily choreography of obtaining water while meeting the demands of home and work.

What is the ripple effect of that? What does it mean for the social contract that undergirds functioning societies?

Those are questions we’re asking as we report a series of stories on the challenges posed by sharp disparities in access to clean water across North America. But we’re watching something else as well: how a rise in citizen engagement may help address them. 

The issues are complex. Drought certainly is one challenge. But other factors are at play. Just travel with our correspondent Xander Peters to Jackson, Mississippi, where the toll of creaking water systems is on full display. You hear it in the voice of salon owner Felicia Brisco, lamenting the business and social cost of turning away customers for weeks at a time due to lack of water. You hear it in the concerns of Charles Williams, Jackson’s public works director, about the waning trust between residents and managers like himself, responsible for the 1,500 miles of aging water mains in the struggling city. 

Water and social well-being are intimately connected. Just think about the sense of betrayal in Flint, Michigan, over the devastating impact of a switch to a contaminated water supply in 2014. Or of Martin County in Kentucky, where we reported in 2017 on a decadeslong battle over high bills for water that many residents won’t drink. 

“There is a fundamental breakdown in the expectation of democracy in places like Appalachia; ... a complaint to the government disappears like the morning fog,” said one observer. 

For Xander, it speaks to the sustainability of the places we call home, that collectively create a nation. “When those contracts are broken, how do you mend?” he asks. “Does a city respond and thrive, or slowly crumble as those with a long legacy there pack up? Why should citizens look to their leaders if they’re not fulfilling their basic needs?”

What’s the way forward? That question has always sat at the heart of our reporting. While progress is often lurching, he and other reporters are talking to neighbors, activists, and lawmakers in many locales who are uniting to push for progress. That’s what we found when we looked in 2018 at Cape Town, South Africa, which dodged becoming the world’s first city to run out of water. Officials, businesses, and residents stepped up, reducing water consumption by half. In the process, they strengthened ties and empathy, driven by the need – and desire – to work in concert. 

“I ask everyone, what does this mean for you?” Xander says. “Yes, it’s a story about policy. But ultimately, it’s about our shared humanity.”

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