The images are shocking. Brown tap water resembling diarrhea. Young children’s faces covered in lesions. For over 18 months, the people of Flint, Michigan, complained that their water was contaminated, but their voices fell on deaf ears. Now it’s been declared a federal emergency, with experts estimating that roughly 8,000 to 9,000 children under the age of 6 may have suffered permanent brain damage after being exposed to high levels of lead in the city’s water supply, not to mention countless adults.
Redacted emails released under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act have since revealed that Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration was aware of Flint’s water problems almost a year ago but neglected to act or even inform the public until it was too late. The revelation has led to sharp criticism from Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with the latter calling for Gov. Snyder to resign.
Matt Damon, the Oscar-nominated actor who, as the co-founder of the successful nonprofit Water.org, is something of an expert on safe drinking water and sanitation, has echoed Sen. Sanders in calling for Snyder to step down.
“At the very least he should resign! At the very least,” Damon told The Daily Beast. “Listen, everybody’s entitled to a fair trial in the United States of America, but that man should get one. And soon. That’s just my personal opinion.” Damon—along with his fellow Water.org co-founder Gary White—was on hand at the Sundance Film Festival to discuss his charity’s recent “Buy a Lady a Drink” campaign. It’s a team-up with Stella Artois that sheds light on how, among the 663 million people around the world without access to safe water, it’s women who are disproportionately affected. So every hand-designed Stella Artois chalice purchased will provide one person with five years of clean water. Last year, Water.org brought five years of clean water to over 290,000 women in developing countries.
“In terms of the work that we do, to see it happening in Flint, every parent in America feels it on a visceral, deep level, because we ask the question, ‘What if that was my child?’” said Damon. “It’s unconscionable in Flint, and it’s unconscionable that 663 million people around the world are dealing with that every day in the developing world. Those are the communities we interact with, and that’s the mission of Water.org: to end that suffering for those children, and those parents.”
“We should be outraged about Flint,” added White. “That shouldn’t be happening in the United States, but it also drives home the point that it shouldn’t be happening anywhere. Flint is the reality for many developing countries around the world.”
That Flint is a majority African-American city where approximately 42 percent of its people live in poverty has raised questions over whether race played a factor in the city’s slow response to the crisis.
“I’ll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action,” said Hillary Clinton.
Damon acknowledged that race has played a factor in not only the water crisis in Flint, but also in our attitude toward water crises in developing countries.
“My sincere hope for our country and our world is that this greater connectivity is going to lead to a greater empathy and an awakening to the plight of our fellow citizens,” he said. “These are huge systemic injustices we’re talking about that hopefully everybody is waking up to. The question then is, what do we do about it? It will be interesting to see where we go from here.”