TOLEDO OH – Ironically, although this city is affixed to the shore of a Great Lake, we’ve given a new meaning to what a “dry” town is. We learned it’s one thing to go without beer; quite another to go without water.
For three days, some 500,000 people avoided almost all bodily contact with water that came out of their faucets. No drinking, cooking, dish-washing, teeth-brushing. Boiling didn’t help. Bathing was OK except for small children, pets and those with compromised immune systems.
Algae blooms in Lake Erie caused by excessive phosphorus and nitrogen from sewage – from humans and animal feedlots – and large scale farming are not new. For years, algae has leached microcystin bacteria into Lake Erie, but literally overnight three days ago, the health of Lake Erie and a long-delayed overhaul of our aging water treatment plant are top priority.
We’ve talked about cleaning up Lake Erie for decades and sometimes did something about it. We’ve talked about upgrading the water plant since…well, at least since we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan over 10 years ago. And lest you think our water plant and the two wars are unrelated, consider this: taxpayers here in Lucas County have pissed over 1.6 billion dollars down war’s sandy rat holes – five times what it would cost to provide safe drinking water to a half-million people who are now wishing they had some.
Fortunately for Toledoans, truckloads of bottled water soon started streaming into town and onto store shelves emptied by anxious residents. Not always – as in the case of Hurricane Katrina – but often, that’s how emergencies turn out for Americans. “Out there” where help comes from is never far away. Restoring Lake Erie to health is clearly the real issue, but today 500,000 people are breathing sighs of relief.
That’s not the case in Iraq, though. “Out there” doesn’t exist. The calamity crushing the people of Iraq, now into its third decade, has been everywhere, all the time. It’s the latest of the mega-tragedies we create, walk away from and forget, but which the rest of the world never forgets.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with tacit U.S. approval in late 1990, his country was quickly hit with U.N. sanctions viciously administered by U.S. fiat for a dozen years. Within months of Saddam’s 1990 invasion, Bush the Elder orchestrated Desert Storm, a military assault that drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and the Iraqi people back to the early Industrial Age.
Since sanctions were already in effect before Bush’s Desert Storm blitz, Pentagon planners knew how desperate Iraq’s drinking water situation was. A detailed report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, issued just days after the blitz began on January 16, 1991, describes the vulnerabilities in Iraq’s ability to provide safe drinking water, concluding that "Full degradation of the water treatment system probably will take at least another six months."
The brief Desert Storm war destroyed 31 water and sewer facilities in Iraq, 20 of them in Baghdad. This, together with a post-war tightening of sanctions, caused the deaths of over 400,000 children under the age of five by 1998, according to a UNICEF study.
The sadism and hubris go even deeper, according to this statement attributed to a Pentagon planner in a November, 2002 Harper’s article by Joy Gordon: "What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of the sanctions."
I won’t further depress/bore/incite you with the statistics for what has happened since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Start with this essential summary by author David Swanson and with little effort you can create your own house of horrors. The point is, this is what we taxpayers have been buying for quite some time: not clean water or education or health care, but the death and misery of whomever the Empire decides is in the way.
A word for those moved to outrage and action instead of immobilized cynicism: for decades movements for peace, environmental sustainability and justice have opposed war after war, environmental outrage after outrage and injustice piled atop more injustices. Surely we cannot ignore such crimes, but we must shift our thinking from reaction to prevention via a movement for democracy that will abolish rule by corporation.
The best way I know of to do that is with the nationwide, grassroots effort to abolish the bizarre practices of corporations having the same rights as people and allowing pallets of cash to buy our elections. Those folks can be found at MoveToAmend.org. We don’t have time to waste.
Mike Ferner is a writer and activist from Toledo. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org