Water shut-off stimulates debate over ‘right’ to natural resources

By Dennis Archambault

The debate over the water shut-off policy of the Detroit Water & Sewage Department has taken several twists and turns. One outcome of the debate has been the opportunity for citizens to debate what constitutes the right to health-sustaining resources, like water, and how a publicly-administered purification and delivery service should charge its customers who are unable to pay, or at least pay the full charge.

The United Nations weighed in early-on: it is an international human right that anyone who needs water should have it. It hasn’t stated — at least not in the context of the Detroit issue — whether public agencies have a responsibility to deliver water to their constituents, or that they should purify that water. Advocates in Detroit has championed this cause by protesting against the water shutoffs as a violation of human rights, and the rights of Detroit citizens to have access to the largest body of fresh water in the nation. Additionally, they have advocated for public health concerns for physical hydration and personal hygiene. Public health agencies have not formally determined that the situation has reached crisis proportions, but many privately voice concern when you have hundreds of people drinking minimal amounts of water daily and drawing it from potentially unsanitary sources.

Others have disputed whether water is a right at all, and that the “privilege” of having fresh water delivered to your home or apartment comes at a price. And if you don’t pay the freight, the service should be discontinued, as with heat and light.

Dan Calabrese, author of The Politics Blog in the Detroit News, argues that “The founders of the United States identified life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights. The modern-day Left wants to expand the category to include things like health care, food, and now even water. But there is a difference between the former group and the latter: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are things you are born with. No one has to provide them to you. The declaration that they are rights means that no one can take them away. the same goes for other First amendment rights like that of free speech, freedom of assembly, and so on. For you to exercise these rights does not require another party to provide you with anything. You simply wak eup in the morning and start exercising them.

“Then we get into an entirely different category: Stuff you need. The difference between stuff you do and stuff you need is that things in the latter category require someone else to provide them to you — unless, of course, you can grow your own food, do surgery on yourself, or install plumbing that runs from Lake St. Clair to your house. And you can’t. So claiming the stuff you need as rights means another party has to buy your food, buy your water, and potentially take care of you — if not at their cost, then at the cost of a third party with whom the provider will be required to deal in order to get compensation.

“These are not rights you exercise. These are rights you demand, and in order for these rights to be fulfilled, someone else is required to either take an action or an expense. That’s really not a right at all.”

Catarina de Albuquerque, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, articulates the perspective that water is a universal human right. The disconnection of water taps in Detroit, she said, constitutes “a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights. … Because of a high poverty rate and a high unemployment rate, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population. …The households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected.

“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 disconnection.”

Health policy offers Americans a good platform for debating this country’s interpretation of what constitutes a right of citizenship. The question of access to an essential natural resource, and a public agency’s responsibility to provide for its impoverished citizenry, is likely to be an ongoing debate.

Dennis Archambault is director of Public Affairs for Detroit Wayne County Health Authority