Flint water crisis evokes the 'human right to water' debate

 The Holloway Reservoir Dam, which supplied Flint, Michigan with water from 1955-1967 and 2013-2015.  Photo: Tony Faiola. 

The Holloway Reservoir Dam, which supplied Flint, Michigan with water from 1955-1967 and 2013-2015.  Photo: Tony Faiola. 

In the 1990s the 'Washington Consensus' became the conventional wisdom for managing water resources.  Based on the premise that privatizing water and selling it as a commodity would finance delivery services and infrastructure while allocating water more efficiently, many countries (from Bolivia to the United States) endorsed water privatization.  While some transitions were effective, many became high-profile disasters, in many cases pricing lower and middle class households out of the water market.  Being a good necessary for survival, this led to a backlash and global movement to reconceptualize water not as a commodity but as a human right.   In 2010 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing a human right to water.  122 countries voted in favor of the resolution; the United States was not one of them.

In many cases municipal water in the United States is supplied by regional government institutions or public-private partnerships.  As water allocation has historically been the purview of state law, a diversity of institutional arrangements have developed over the years, many of which work well.  Nonetheless, the Flint water crisis shows that the conceptual debate (with very real consequences) over water as a commodity or human right is alive and well.  Although Flint's water supply was never fully privatized nor guaranteed by human right, the crisis as it emerged showed the fundamental tensions government service providers must grapple with.

To be fair, it should be noted that water infrastructure is crumbling across the country.  Most of it was built in the twentieth century, and is now in dire need of repair or replacement.  The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our drinking water infrastructure a D+ grade, estimating that replacement costs for pipes alone would exceed $1 trillion.  Despite capital investments not keeping pace with upgrade costs, Congress has been spending less and less on local infrastructure maintenance.  As a result, state and local governments must pick up the tab, leading to skyrocketing water bills for consumers.  In Detroit water bills average nearly $150/month, and Flint's water rates are among the highest in the United States.  When Detroit shut off water connections to households that couldn't pay, the UN condemned the move as a violation of human rights.

Given these circumstances, it shouldn't be surprising that water policies have prioritized cost-cutting and short-term gains.  Flint's decision to switch from water provided by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to water provided by the Karegnondi Water Authority was a financial one, as the move was projected to save the city $19 million over eight years.  While that's a good chunk of change for a cash-strapped city like Flint, it's worth noting that even at the time of the decision, huge risks were apparent.  On the one hand, officials knew it would take three years to connect to the KWA.  On the other hand, officials also knew that an interim water supply was not guaranteed - the DWSD had a termination clause that would allow it to stop providing water to Flint after 12 months.  Sure enough, the clause was exercised, putting Flint on the clock to obtain an alternate water source.

There were a number of problems with the Flint River option, but it did have one major advantage: it was the cheapest option, saving the city $5 million over two years.   On the surface, though, the rhetoric echoed the responsibility of government to provide water to citizens.  Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said "water is an absolute vital service that most everyone takes for granted...It's a historic moment for the city of Flint to return to its roots and use our own river as our drinking water supply."  When the Flint city council voted to reconnect to the Detroit water system after water quality concerns emerged, however, the state's emergency manager cited costs as justification for opposing the move.  

The outrage over the handling of the crisis is predicated on a few different factors, including political affiliations, race, and class.  But weaving in and out of these debates is the tension between water being managed as a commodity and the fundamental dependency that human populations have on water resources.  Just like water privatization efforts in the 1990s and 2000s led to public fury and protests around the world, so the Flint water crisis flames are stoked by water management decisions repeatedly based on financial considerations.  President Obama offered his own critique, calling the crisis "a reminder of why you can’t shortchange basic services that we provide to our people and that we, together, provide as a government to make sure that the public health and safety is preserved."  In the wake of the disaster, one Michigan state representative declared water to be a human right, and proposed legislation that would make the same point: "Are there teeth behind this bill? Possibly not, but at least we're making a statement that everybody in Michigan has a right."

Given the state of the country's water infrastructure, Flint is unlikely to be a one-off disaster.  Local governments are in a tough spot, with few resources available to maintain crumbling infrastructure, and an obligation to provide basic services like water supply to their citizens. Flint can demonstrate to other municipalities around the country that setting water policies based on short-term financial considerations not only may not pay off in the long-run, it may also strike a nerve shared by many people who view water as one of the most basic and essential services a government provides for its people.  Understanding that sensitivity and cultural connection to water will be a prerequisite for navigating the tough water management decisions that lie ahead.