Water Is a Human Right in Detroit, Ireland, Iraq, Everywhere

November 11, 2014 Updated: November 10, 2014

Last summer, Iraq’s Yazidi people fled to the desert to escape religious persecution. Trapped atop Mount Sinjar, the refugees started dying of thirst. In a humanitarian effort applauded worldwide, our U.S. military air-dropped bottled water and saved many lives.

Likewise, church groups who provide disaster relief and overseas development assistance put water projects at the top of their priority lists. Many Americans may also sympathize with Irish protesters who last week demonstrated in vast numbers against the privatization of their nation’s water system, resulting in high water prices.

Clearly, access to clean affordable water, essential to life, is a vital question of human ethics and morality.

Unfortunately, our water policies at home seem to be far less generous and forward thinking than abroad.

Since January 2013, the city of Detroit has cut off drinking water to over 50,000 impoverished households that were behind on their utility bills. With cutoffs continuing at up to 3,000 per week, families are forced to decide between high water prices and food.

This October, a federal judge allowed the cutoffs to continue, concluding that while “water is a necessary ingredient to sustaining life,” there is no legally “enforceable right to free and affordable water.” Judge Steven Rhodes’s decision essentially establishes water as a privilege for those who can afford it, not a basic human right.

I disagree, and so do United Nations investigators looking into the Detroit cutoffs. They said that water is the most basic of human survival needs, and a public health necessity.

Clean water for all used to be a guiding vision in America. In the past, our municipal water systems were built to guarantee safe, inexpensive water to millions of citizens. These enormous public projects with their wells and reservoirs, pumping and purifying stations, and vast networks of water mains, have been essential to the growth of thriving cities and healthy communities.

Monopoly With Obligations

Most water utilities are monopolies. They have to be, since multiple utilities serving a service area would mean chaos. Many are government run, though a recent trend has turned public water utilities over to private business. Unfortunately, privatization brings the profit motive into play, and drives water prices up.

The single source of supply means that none of us can shop around for the best water prices. We can’t easily gather our own water. We depend on the municipal supply. If the system becomes too costly, the poor are put in a desperate situation.

Water monopolies, chartered by local governments, have an obligation to provide affordable and reliable water to all members of their service community. There can be no moral justification for stranding citizens without clean water, or for charging prices that make water access economically impossible.

As a basic matter of morality, communities must ensure that all citizens have—at minimum—water for drinking and sanitation, made available at the lowest price.

Admittedly, water utilities are in a tough spot. Dwindling and degraded supplies, aging infrastructure, and growing populations make it hard to provide affordable water for all. Their system-wide costs have to be covered. But those costs mustn’t be carried on the backs of those in need.

That may mean subsidizing water costs for the underprivileged, just as we subsidize winter fuel bills. This is good public policy. Inadequate water for sanitation can lead to the spread of disease, while lack of affordable drinking water can result in civil unrest. In Ireland 120,000 took to the streets this October to protest water privatization and increased rates. Similar events in Bolivia led to mass protests and violence in 2000.

Ethicists around the world speak of water as a human right, an essential need that cannot be denied. Access to water, to that human right, is just as real to the people of Detroit as to the Yazidi stranded in the desert—and denying it is just as wrong.

A lush green lawn, swimming pool, or 20-minute shower is not a right. But a glass of water, a working toilet, and the ability to bathe are minimal necessities that should be available to every American.

Water is no dry topic. It is the most basic and essential service provided by municipalities. As people of conscience, we must speak clearly and loudly whenever access to water is threatened.

The Rev. Peter Sawtell is executive director of Eco-Justice Ministries, www.eco-justice.org © Blue Ridge Press 2014.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.