Plumbing lessons from the US’s Rust Belt

The Flint water crisis in the US has brought the problems of failing water infrastructure into the spotlight.

By Mike Muller

Failing water infrastructure brings with it a whole host of problems, as has recently become evident in the US cities of Detroit and Flint. In the spirit of my favourite management maxim – learn from our successes and other people’s mistakes – and ahead of the World Plumbing Conference (WPC 2016), the US has a cautionary tale for everybody in the water business.

It starts with a couple of bad, bankrupt municipalities. Detroit has had problems ever since the car factories left town and went to Mexico, one reason that Donald Trump gets so much support, but that’s another story. The neighbouring town of Flint had similar problems.

When a town loses jobs, it also loses people and then, because fewer people are paying for services, it loses money. Both Detroit and Flint had all those problems. Their municipalities had also ‘forgotten’ to put money in the bank to pay the very expensive pensions of their former officials. As a result, fewer people had to pay not just for water supply services but for pensions as well. So both cities went bankrupt.

The emergency managers (we call them administrators in South Africa) tried to fix the problem in Detroit by increasing water charges, not just for their city but also for the towns around who were part of Detroit’s big regional water utility, like our Rand and Umgeni Waters. But when the Detroit water got too expensive, Flint’s emergency managers decided to take water from their own local river.

Don’t make decisions about water on the basis of what’s cheapest.

While the Flint River water was cheaper, it brought new problems: its quality was frankly BAD! This part of the US is home to all the old polluting industries, near the Great Lakes where ships brought coal and iron ore for the steel mills. It is not known as the ‘rust belt’ for nothing.

Worse, much of the domestic plumbing in Flint still uses lead pipes and the more aggressive river water began to dissolve the lead. The administrators had not read their government’s regulations on corrosion protection for lead piping, or if they had, they didn’t understand them, which is not surprising since the summary is over 60 pages long. So they took no preventive measures.

The result was an epidemic of lead poisoning that has left many children, in particular, very sick. Suddenly, Flint became the centre of national attention with investigative journalists, politicians and commissions of enquiry coming from every corner of the country to try and fix (or publicise) the problem. Some bottled water was supplied for drinking and cooking but, as you can imagine, the citizens were not impressed.

So what are the lessons? First, don’t make decisions about water on the basis of what’s cheapest. Cheap solutions often become very expensive, in many different ways. Second, don’t let accountants or politicians make technical decisions alone. Make sure that they consult with someone who knows what they are doing, or can at least can understand the regulations. That includes the plumbers. Presumably many of the tradespeople in Flint knew about the lead pipes in the system, but no-one bothered to ask them.

There is likely to be one good outcome. Watch the American election results later this year. This is the kind of problem that makes people angry enough to go out and vote their minds! Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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