Thirsting for Justice

When most of us think about lack of access to water among the poor, we're more likely to envision people in third-world countries — victims of drought, famine or polluted rivers — rather than our neighbors here in the United States. After all, water is a necessity that we expect our government to provide for its citizens, and access to water is a human right.

Yet, until just last week, untold numbers of residents of Newark, New Jersey, — many of them innocent victims caught in the net of their landlords' unpaid bills — faced dry faucets for more than a month as part of the city's aggressive campaign to collect unpaid water debt. Since initiating this effort in August, Newark turned off nearly 600 water accounts in an attempt to collect $29 million in unpaid bills. Newark's desire to collect this debt is entirely understandable, but unpaid bills do not trump human rights or public health.

Remarkably, Newark did not distinguish between irresponsible landlords and innocent tenants in shutting off the water. Renters constitute 75 percent of the population in Newark; for nearly all of them, monthly rent covers the water bill, which landlords then pay directly to the city. Yet renting families — and not the offending landlords — bore the brunt of the city's shutoffs. Imagine the stress of suddenly having to move your family because you could no longer cook, bathe or drink a glass of water, thanks to your landlord's failure to pay the water bills.

In response to the cries of advocates and activists, Newark suspended the shutoffs this month, providing not only humanitarian relief to those deprived of water service for up to  two months, but a critical opportunity for Mayor Cory Booker's administration to rethink the problem — this time with a truer moral compass and a commitment to transparency and due process. Call it a watershed moment.

The moral position is consistent with international, national, state and local law: Access to water is a human right vital to public health.

International law implicitly and explicitly protects our right to water. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 outlined that all people have the right to optimal health and an adequate standard of living, and life itself cannot exist without water.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, noting in a 1978 decision that public health depends on access to water. If there had been any doubt regarding water as a human right, in 2002 the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2002 issued General Comment No. 15, guaranteeing the right to water.

State and local laws also recognize the essential need for water, requiring New Jersey's cities to declare dwellings without water uninhabitable and to pay for the relocation of residents. It's hard to know whether Newark has followed this law during the two months of shutoffs. If it didn't, people would have been forced to either stay in uninhabitable dwellings or somehow find the money to pay for sudden moving costs. If the city did pay for people to move, I'd like to see a cost-benefit analysis comparing the expense of relocating tenants to the amount collected in water debt from those accounts.

Considering the near-universal understanding of access to water as a human rights issue, as well as the potential for financial loss and a public health crisis, it's dismaying that Newark did not pursue every possible alternative for collecting delinquent payments to avoid shutting families' water off. The city did not announce its plans to sell tax liens against large offenders until after it had already suspended the shutoffs. While a step forward, tax liens should have come before depriving families of water. Even if the city does not agree that cutting off people's water is never an option, it should treat shutoffs as an absolute last resort, and only after sufficiently warning landlords and tenants.

The indispensability of water heightens the importance of transparency and due process when officials threaten people's access to it. People's expressions of frustration at the lack of openness and consistency in implementing our city's shutoffs have coursed through Newark, from the bill payment lines to the city streets. Advocacy groups have gotten a slew of complaints about inconsistent and arbitrary official decisions, with some families left wondering why they could not negotiate to keep their water on when similarly situated neighbors could.

The enormity of the debt, as well as the lack of information from the city about the largest debtors, has sparked questions about how much local corporations owe and how the city plans to collect that debt. Collecting from individuals might bring in a trickle of funds, but collecting from corporations might provide Newark with the stream it needs to significantly decrease the debt.

A human rights and public health crisis like this demands that governments first go after the big fish, which have more to pay and less to lose, before worrying about the little fish, which may be easier targets but also much more vulnerable. Only a more open process will tell residents which approach Newark has taken.

People have a right to know whether a fair and reasonable process governs decision-making that affects their lives. Families need fair shutoff policies that can be enforced consistently without sacrificing humanity or due process. Payment options should be available to citizens on a fair and equal basis. Court precedents and model practices from other cities can provide a head start in developing better policies. As for transparency, Newark can start by publishing its criteria for determining which corporations, landlords or families face shutoffs, and which do not. The suspension of shutoffs offers a promising new start, but only open and fair collection practices will renew the faith of the people

By doing the right thing in the right way, Newark has the opportunity to get that much closer to ensuring that both residents' taps and the city's coffers overflow with liquid assets.