Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Water Is a Human Right
distributed 9/5/14 - ©2014

A wide variety of recent news stories prove that access to drinking water is not a dry topic. Water is at the heart of global conflicts, human rights and economics. Access to water is a central question of ethics. Here are just a few examples of some of the prominent stories from the last six weeks.

  • In early August, the US and Britain air-dropped bottled water and other supplies to the Yazidi people who were fleeing religious persecution in Iraq. Without water in their desert refuge on Mount Sinjar, they would surely die of thirst -- and many did.

  • During that same August week, the city of Detroit continued to cut off drinking water to tens of thousands of impoverished citizens who were behind on their utility bills. Many of them were forced to decide between high water prices and food.

  • A large water main broke in Los Angeles at the tail end of July, flooding streets, parking garages, and the UCLA basketball court with millions of gallons of water. The LA flood was only the most dramatic of dozens of burst water mains this summer, including Seattle, Tampa, Boston, Nashville and Des Moines. The aging water infrastructure of US cities is a hidden and very expensive threat to reliable and affordable water supplies.

  • The exceptional drought in California has brought calls for water conservation. People are being asked to cut back on essential water use, and to eliminate watering that isn't necessary. Los Angeles is using tiered pricing to make wasteful water uses more expensive.

For refugees in a Middle East desert, the importance of water is obvious. But it is no less essential for people who expect to get water out of a faucet at home.

We use water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing dishes, and for flushing toilets. Water is the most basic of our needs for survival, and is necessary for public health. As a statement from the Equal Life Foundation says: "Humans cannot exist without clean water, therefore ... clean water must be a human right."

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Almost all of us receive our water from a monopoly, whether that is a government agency or a private business. That monopoly taps supplies (rivers and lakes, reservoirs and wells), purifies the water, and maintains the infrastructure to distribute it to us. Pure, fresh water isn't free -- although for most of us, a glass of water is amazingly cheap, especially compared to the outlandish prices charged for bottled water!

Regardless of the price, though, the single source of supply means that we can't shop around for the best prices. We can't decide to gather our own water. When it comes to the volume of water that households need for daily use, we depend on the municipal supply. If their system fails, or if they cut us off, we are 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 access to water unrealistic. Yet the global trend toward water privatization -- where corporations take over water systems and treat water as a commodity to be sold for profit -- is frequently raising household prices, even on the most poor.

As a basic matter of morality, communities must ensure that all of their members have at least minimal water for drinking and sanitation, and that those basic levels must be available at the very lowest prices. Policies need to be in place that subsidize water costs for those who cannot afford minimal services.

Ethicists around the world speak of water as a human right, an essential need that cannot be denied or withdrawn. Denying access to water, to that human right, is just as real whether people are stranded in the desert, have their water taps turned off, or if water is priced so high that they are unable to pay the bills. Indeed, a United Nations spokeswoman, writing about the Detroit situation, said:

Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.

A lush green lawn or a swimming pool is not a right. A 20-minute shower is not a right. But a glass of water, a working toilet, and the ability to bathe are the minimal necessities that every person in the United States, in every developed country, should receive as a matter of rights and decency.

The water utilities are in a tough spot. Pollution and degraded supplies make it hard to purify water. Old pipes are difficult and expensive to replace. Those costs do have to be covered. But those costs cannot and must not be carried by those in need. And the poor certainly cannot be a "profit center" for corporations.

Among all of the services provided by a municipality, clean water is the most basic and the most essential. As people of faith, we must speak clearly and loudly when access to water is threatened.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Note: Last week I mentioned the film Disruption, which talks about the power of social movements. There will be hundreds of free community screenings of the film this Sunday, September 7. Find a showing near you, and be inspired.

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