Tuesday, February 2, 2016
Through the tireless work of people on the ground in Michigan communities, the national media outlets finally put the Flint water crisis on the front page in January, months after the story first surfaced. But while there is much that should be said about the government mistakes and cover-ups that led to this terrible human tragedy, it is also worth remembering the larger context. The choice to switch to Flint River water was driven by the rising costs of water. Circle of Blue reports that US water prices have risen 41 percent in the past five years. In the absence of federal subsidies or a nationally-financed plan of investing in water infrastructure, the increasing maintenance and treatment costs are passed on to cities and then to local consumers. For many residents of Flint, relying on low wage jobs or fixed incomes and juggling other household expenses, those kinds of increases are simply unaffordable.
Today, most people in the US still have ready access to basic water and sanitation, but as costs rise, water inequality is growing. As we move into this new era, we must ask, do we have the legal infrastructure in place to ensure access to necessary water and sanitation, to provide those most basic aspects of human dignity to all residents of the United States? Human rights law calls for water and sanitation that is available, accessible, safe, acceptable and affordable for all, without discrimination. Some jurisdictions, like California, have begun to incorporate these norms into their laws. Human rights-based water law reforms are also pending in Michigan. Cities including Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cleveland offer affordability plans to enable low income households to pay what they can afford and keep their water access. Certainly, the crisis in Flint makes clear that any US exceptionalism on this issue is misplaced. The right to water and sanitation is not just an issue for developing countries, but must be taken seriously in the U.S. as well.