Examining the cracks in universal water coverage: Women document the burdens of household water insecurity

Lucero Radonic
Department of Anthropology and Environmental Science and Policy Program, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, United States; radonicl@msu.edu

Cara E. Jacob
Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, United States; jacobca1@msu.edu

ABSTRACT: Universal access to safe drinking water is assumed to be a defining characteristic of cities in the Global North. This article documents the daily challenges facing working class women in Flint, Michigan, when the promise of modern water infrastructure cracks. In 2014, in order to reduce costs, Flint’s drinking water source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This change, and specifically the way it was managed, resulted in contamination of the water supply with lead and pathogens. While the experience of Flint is now an emblematic case of water insecurity in the Global North, it is not unique. Through a case study developed in the context of a community-based participatory research project, this article details how water insecurity transferred the burden of clean water provisioning back to individual households, and specifically to women. Rather than being able to rely on the labour and technical expertise that have rendered water safe in the modern city, Flint residents were abruptly made responsible for ensuring their own water security. We detail how the Flint water crisis brought about a 'new normal'; we consider the ways in which it gave rise to a new relationship to potable water that was characterised by a (re)turn to bottled or filtered water (from tap water) and a shift in who is responsible for the labour necessary to render water safe. The women’s testimonies that we present here illustrate how, when modern uniform water fails, people begin to see heterogeneous waters.

KEYWORDS: Water, water security, household water insecurity, infrastructure, gender, photovoice, Flint, USA, Global North