Water -- A Privilege or Right?

Last October, a Detroit bankruptcy judge declared that there was no doubt that water was necessary for life, but that didn't mean there was an enforceable right to free and affordable water.

He was referring to the city's poor souls who were two months in arrears in their water bills and were having their service suspended as a result. The judge clearly regarded access to drinking water as a privilege, not a right. Cold-blooded? Well, keep in mind he was only reflecting the policy of the nation at large.

In 2007, the United States responded negatively to the United Nations declaration that access to safe drinking water be considered a fundamental human right.

"We do not share the view that a right to water exists under international law," stated the U.S. delegation. As with the Detroit judge, our government was quick to add that water was essential to life. Moreover, our UN delegation agreed that government had a responsibility to ensure that all citizens had access to drinking water. It was just that the responsibility was "not of a legal nature".

In other words, we believed everyone was entitled to drinking water; we just didn't want to be legally bound to enforce that right. Sounds suspiciously like a cop-out!

Further doubt was cast on our resolve as our federal government "passed the buck" by telling the UN that it was up to America's individual states and localities to see that their citizens had access to safe water.

Such national equivocation is not evidenced in many other countries. At last count, 177 of the UN's 193 member states formally recognize an environmental right as a human right. Ninety of them, in fact, have included in their constitution specific language affirming the individual's right to a clean and healthy environment.

Would that we followed suit, although some might argue that we already have. The Declaration of Independence decrees that people "have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Because of early America's abundance of fresh water, usage of the pervasive liquid was treated more as a property right than a human right. But any justification for that value system vanished with contraction of water accessibility due to the increase in population, development and pollution.

Our politicians may fear that guaranteed access to drinking water turns us into a socialist state, and in any event, effective enforcement would be difficult. How to ensure that those able to pay do so, and those genuinely in need of help receive it? Would our recognizing the inalienable right to a clean environment obligate us to subsidize that goal in struggling developing countries?

There are many ways to weed out deadbeats, and the UN Human Rights Declaration doesn't hold any country responsible for enforcing another country's environmental rights.

As for the threat of socialism, it is a red herring. Private enterprise's participation in drinking water distribution is welcome in the United States and is commonplace, often in collaboration with governmental authorities. Whatever the arrangement, the public sector should be available to provide backup when customers legitimately cannot afford to pay their water bills.

That is not socialism. It's capitalism with a heart.