Dismissing Water as a Human Right is a Dangerous Path

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Last week, attorneys for Flint and the state of Michigan argued that a federal court should dismiss the case against them for the mass poisoning of the residents of Flint, declaring that water is not a constitutional right. They made this claim despite government actions causing and even covering up dangerous lead levels in the entire city’s drinking water. Attorneys relied on a 2014 federal court ruling that rejected water as a right and left tens of thousands of low-income families in Detroit with no recourse after massive water shut-offs that came in the wake of steep rate hikes over the last decade.

Until recently, almost all Americans took access to clean water for granted. Since the multiple crises in Michigan, however, reports from across the country have revealed that both water shut-offs and lead-laced water are shockingly commonplace.   

Water is essential for human survival. While the outcome in the Flint case is still unknown, the recent court argument makes clear that our law and policy, by denying the fundamental nature of water, leaves Americans far too unprotected from the abuses of a government out of control. As we fight to reclaim our government, we must make recognizing water as a basic right a central focus for progressive movements and candidates.

Water is life. From Flint to Standing Rock, it is primarily communities of color that are on the front lines. They are the first to be denied clean water, and they are leading the resistance. Communities have been poisoned by lead, and fought back, in Brick Township, N.J, Toledo and Sebring, Ohio, Washington, D.C, Durham and Greenville, N.C., Columbia, S.C., Jackson, Miss., and Compton, CA. Not surprisingly, race is the primary determinant of proximity to toxins in the United States. Companies and governments disproportionately put waste disposal, pipelines, and other pollutants near communities of color, counting on residents’ lack of political power preventing them from holding decision-makers accountable for the harms they impose. In the Eagle Ford area of Texas, for example, residents in areas with 80% people of color were twice as likely to live near wastewater wells from fracking than in areas with less than 20% people of color.

All people are interdependent and we can only ensure the essential requirements of life—water, food, education, housing, healthcare, work, income, transportation, and a clean environment— through collective efforts. NESRI supports movements on the ground that are fighting for these fundamental rights. Defending these rights requires building popular power to implement them.

When it comes to water, it is clear the courts are not going to save us.  We need long-term strategies that begin with countering the government’s position and insisting that water is a fundamental right for everyone – from affordability to quality.  In order to actualize that right, however, we also need systems to deliver clean water as a public and community good, along with the democratic structures to protect access to water. Communities have been promoting effective interrelated solutions to the growing water crisis. Some of those solutions are:

Restoring and Defending Public Utilities: Publicly or community-financed water, electricity, home heating fuel, communication, and internet connectivity up to a reasonable standard of use for each household would ensure access to these basic needs. High-consumption households, businesses, and institutions providing non-essential services should pay more. To support democratic governance, regulations and financing should steer utilities toward member-owned models that promote community control.

People-Centered Democracy: We need to defend popular democracy, and rebuild local democracy, in order to expand and protect public goods and services.  This begins with stopping undemocratic take-overs like those that happened in Detroit and Flint, leading to decisions that undermined the health and safety of those communities. But it must also extend to new democratic strategies. In Flint, hidden from public view resources were diverted away from essential upgrades for the water system. A transparent, democratic and participatory budgeting process would likely make such an outcome impossible. Demand for this model is growing in the United States and has shown incredible success in other parts of the world.  In Porto Alegre, Brazil citizens make decisions on how the entire budget is spent, and the process was designed as “pro-poor” to invert social priorities. The outcomes have been concrete and dramatic; for example access to sanitation and clean water jumped from 85% of the population to 98% as a result.

Green Energy: How we produce energy and the safety and quality of our water are inextricably linked. Expanding community and publicly owned and controlled green energy on a mass scale would protect our water, as well as improve our air, and reduce carbon emissions that are threatening our future. Because these models are also not for profit and community controlled, they can ensure affordability as well.

When our government is poisoning residents of our cities on a mass scale and formally washing its hands of its responsibility to ensure clean water, it is time for a new social contract grounded in human rights and new, more effective, forms of democracy. NESRI expresses our solidarity and support for the residents of Flint, including everyone’s human right to clean water, and asks you to join our call for a new social contract.

(Photo Credit: John Duffy/flickr/cc)