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The Water Crisis In Flint: If Flint Were a Country…

By Maksim Kokushkin

…it would rank at the bottom of the world for urban access to clean water. The preface to current crisis was written in 2013 when the Governor-appointed emergency manager authorized Flint’s switch from a safe water source to a less expensive one. In the spring of 2014, the city started drawing water for household consumption from the highly polluted Flint River. According to the Virginia Tech scientists who first exposed the public health crisis in 2015, the levels of lead and other pollutants in the tap water made it unsafe for consumption, even after filtering.

graphs depicting data on GDP and clean water acess showing low income as having low access to clean water
Click to enlarge.

The Detroit Free Press is reporting that lead levels are down in early 2016, but the crisis will have long-term public health consequences. In addition, that crisis is now raising the overall awareness about water safety and access, experienced in various parts of the US. That is why it is important to put the Flint water crisis in perspective.

Using the latest available World Bank data, Flint’s numbers can be plotted along with those of nation states. The charts above (click to enlarge) have two dimensions: 1) the numbers on the bottom represent percentages of a particular population (total, urban and rural) with access to improved water supply in 2014; 2) the vertical dimension represents the income per person (GDP per capita) in 2014. Each country with available data is plotted on the charts and the patterns are highlighted with a smoother. Lighter blue areas contain fewer countries, while darker blue areas contain more countries. The estimates for Flint are overlaid along with information to make the charts more readable.

Compared to the vast majority of the world, Flint has one of the lowest percentages of urban populations with access to clean water. In the middle chart, Flint’s position is all the way to the left; an average of 55% (but as low as 39%) of the population had access to clean water during the crisis. In the middle chart, the closest two points to Flint’s are those of the West Bank and Gaza (55%) and Mauritania (60%). For comparison, most of the world’s countries (developed and developing) can claim that over 90% of their urban populations have access to clean water. The middle chart above illustrates that by showing a high concentration of countries (dark blue area on the right-hand side) above the 90% mark.

person walking and carrying a pack of water from a large stack of water bottles
Bottled water distribution in Downtown Flint. Photo credit: Linda Parton /

Things look less extreme when Flint is compared with the rural (right-hand-side chart) and total (left-hand-side chart) populations’ access to clean water. Still, Flint’s position is far from where most of the world is clustered (dark blue areas). Given the correlation between GDP per capita and access to clean water, Flint stands out as a clear outlier. Its income per person (average household income divided by average household size) is around $14,000. Countries with much lower GDP per capita have much higher levels of access to clean water.

In January 2016, the US president declared a state of emergency in Flint to deal with the water crisis after the city had already switched back to Detroit water in October 2015. However, the causes of the reckless policies that led to the poisoning of Flint citizens can be examined in deeper ways.

  • MLive’s “Truth Squad” is keeping up with current developments and fact-checking any statements by public officials, including the Governor of Michigan.
  • (Updated, February 16) On the issue of cost, Washington Post’s Christopher Ingram wrote a post showing that Flint water was both unsafe and extremely expensive.
  • FiveThirtyEight’s Anna Maria Barry-Jester wrote an accessible and historically oriented column about the issue. The column connects the current crisis with the state’s emergency management laws, most recently passed against the voters’ will. The author also includes references to the racial and social class aspects of the current crisis.
  • For an academic article that explores the crisis in democratic governance that produced Michigan’s emergency managers, Kokushkin & Pettys (2015) is available through the publisher’s web site. A pre-production full-text draft can also be accessed on and Research Gate. The article connects Michigan’s economic policies with broader neo-liberalization trends.

Technical Note: The R code used to extract the World Bank data and produce the charts can be examined on GitHub. Because of the enormous range of the values of GDP/capita, I have used the equivalent base-10 logarithm values. I welcome accuracy checks and feedback. The Flint and meta-data overlays were added in the GoodNotes app on iOS.


Dr. Kokushkin currently teaches in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Kalamazoo College and does research on economic policies and collective action in the US and internationally. This post was originally published on his blog.

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