This World Water Day, Afya looks back on our work in West Virginia and Flint, MI

Today we recognize World Water Day, a day commemorating the human right to clean water and sanitation that so many live without.

March 22, 2021

By: Marissa Roberge

Afya is committed to improving global health across the globe. Part and parcel to that mission is clean water and sanitation. That is why, when possible, Afya has stepped in to provide aid to those suffering from the most severe water crises across the country. 

2014: The Elk River spill, West Virginia

In January of 2014, thousands of gallons of coal cleaning agent leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank into West Virginia’s Elk River. Nine counties, 300,000 people, were left without drinking water. This wasn’t the first time towns along the Kanawha River Valley experienced such a crisis. The region is colloquially known as Chemical Valley because it is home to the largest concentration of chemical plants in the United States. At the time of the crisis National Geographic reported that the Elk River spill was the region’s third industrial accident in five years.

On January 9, reports of a powerful black licorice odor coming from the taps circulated and people arrived at emergency rooms complaining of rashes, nausea and other symptoms of chemical exposure. With the realization that the water was unsafe to drink, cook with or bathe in, people flocked to stores in search of bottled water. The shelves were quickly depleted.

Afya recognized the great danger the leak posed and quickly mobilized our staff, volunteers and partners to secure donations of bottled water for affected families. Afya then worked with Go Lift, the UPS Foundation and the National Guard to arrange shipments of water and humanitarian provisions for West Virginians.

2018: Flint, Michigan

Just four years after the Elk River spill, Afya found itself at the forefront of aid delivery for another water contamination crisis. This time in Flint, Michigan.

In 2014 to cut costs, the city switched its water supply to the Flint River. The water from the Flint River was highly corrosive. This fact coupled with inadequate water treatment and testing, resulted in a massive health crisis that lasted years. Residents began complaining that their tap water had a foul-smell, was discolored and tasted funny. Nonetheless officials denied there was a problem for months while pipes continued to leach dangerous levels of lead into the water supply. The result was widespread disease.

President Obama declared a state of emergency in 2016 and for two years the city provided free bottled water to residents. But on April 6, 2018, Governor Snyder ended clean water distribution in Flint, claiming that lead levels had fallen below the federal action level – a number that has no bearing on health according to the

Natural Resources Defense Council.The day after the governor’s announcement, Afya received a donation of 500 pallets of water. Afya founder and CEO Danielle Butin immediately knew this water needed to go to Flint and got in touch with Reverend Pete Jones of Hitchcock Presbyterian Church in Scarsdale, NY.

Together Reverend Pete and Afya raised more than $40,000 to fund 22 tractor trailers from NYC to Flint. In total 95,000 gallons of water were delivered to First Trinity Baptist Church and Court Street Church distribution centers.

Upon receiving the first trailers of water, one church wrote to us: “The distribution lines have been massive in both locations. Again, we can’t thank you enough for the shipments!!!!” A comment that is evident of the danger and distrust that would persist in Flint.

Looking Ahead

It is hard to believe that as recently as last year, The Guardian reported that in the United States alone, 30 million people live in areas where they do not have access to safe drinking water and 110 million are exposed to toxic chemicals in their drinking water on a regular basis.

The water crisis in America stems from a myriad of issues including a history of industrial dumping, pollution from farming, a deteriorating water infrastructure, and insufficient regulation. It is a crisis that experts like US Water Alliance say predominantly affects low-income people in rural areas, people of color, tribal communities and immigrants. It is one we cannot rely on federal or local government agencies to fix. 

The latest clean water crisis is playing out in Texas where, after winter storms resulted in power outages and burst pipes in February 2021, water systems have been compromised. Community needs after natural disasters are varied and evolving and this time Afya is bringing much needed medical supplies to Texans suffering from the crisis.

Donate today and help Afya in its mission to improve health systems around the world.

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