Water as a Human Right?

A photograph taken from the edge of the Detroit River.

A photograph taken from the edge of the Detroit River.

As many Americans know, the city of Detroit has had its fair share of struggles. One of the most recent issues plaguing the city of Detroit has to do with water. A recent increase in water shutoffs by the city has sparked controversy amongst many Detroiters. On June 26, 2014 protesters circled in front of the Detroit Water Board building, declaring that the city had violated their human rights by shutting off their access to water.

Deputy Director for Detroit’s Water and Sewage, Darryl Latimer explained that those who are considered “delinquent customers” are getting their water shut off because the city can no longer afford to offer free water to customers who are not paying their bills. Those customers that fall under a delinquent status means that their bill is at least sixty days past due and they owe over $150. Furthermore, Latimer explained that a visit to the Detroit Water Board office could help customers who are having difficulty paying their bills. He says that the city is willing to work with customers who are facing issues of affordability. A week before the June protest, the Detroit City Council voted and approved an 8.7% rate increase on water because of their accumulating debt.

With help from protesters and the media, the issue of water shutoffs in Detroit has become bigger than life, receiving way more attention than it should have. Yes, I believe that water is a necessity, considering we as humans need it to live. However, water is most certainly not a human right. Like Detroit, towns and cities across the country participate in a similar process when it comes to collecting, purifying and delivering water to millions of homes and businesses daily. This process is called a service. A service is not a right and therefore this process that is completed for us, must be paid for. Why should Detroiters receive free water while millions of other Americans continue to pay their bills?

This week we read three chapters from Hobbes’ book the Leviathan. As Hobbes suggests, all humans are created equal. This concept of equality is of extreme importance in American society today, as it rightfully should. However, it is but common knowledge that the resources and goods available to us are but limited. Therefore, we often fight for such scarce goods. But in the case of the Detroit water shutoffs, the resource of water is plentiful, it’s the means to acquire the water service that is the issue.

Deputy Director Darryl Latimer urges customers to visit their office to work out payment plans and offer assistance to Detroiters facing affordability issues.

Deputy Director Darryl Latimer urges customers to visit their office to work out payment plans and offer assistance to Detroiters facing affordability issues.

Hobbes also makes the statement that as humans we are self-interested and act accordingly, enabling us to gain more and more power. In fighting for scarce resources or the means to attain certain resources, we often enter into what Hobbes calls social contracts. We suppress our human nature to acquire more power in order to survive. The thirst for power is still there, social contracts just help us to suppress it so that we can live in peace.

In the realm of world politics, the state is a legal entity that manages the affairs of a population in a given territory. States are in the business of protection and enforcement. In other words, the state protects its citizens from attacks (internal or external), while simultaneously providing domestic order by enforcing social contracts. The state protects us and enforces the laws it establishes and in return we do things like pay taxes, obey the authority of the state, and give our lives in the form of military participation. In the Leviathan, Hobbes refers to the legal entity of the state as the commonwealth.

According to this social contract that is set up between the state or commonwealth and its citizens, it is clear that both sides must give in order to receive. According to Latimer, although some customers truly cannot pay their water bills, many have grown accustom to not paying even when they are able. This brings both the collective action problem and the free rider dilemma to the forefront.

Detroit Water and Sewage provides the city with water service and the recent shut offs can be seen a a collective action problem. This service can be considered a jointly supplied good because it is excludable, meaning that those who do not pay their water bill will not receive the service. Now, the city of Detroit faces a difficult decision when it comes to shutting off water service to business and homes. Although they may feel bad doing so, if they let certain free riders get away with not paying their water bills, others may think that they no longer have to pay theirs either. A domino effect of free riders may occur if the state allows one sector to break the social contract that all other citizens are still tied to. If everyone wants to be a free rider, Detroit Water and Sewage will no longer be able to provide their service, for there would be no form of income to sustain the processes they provide us with.

Now, considering Hobbes’ first two laws of nature, it is only rational for people to act within their self-interest and try to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs economically. However, as American citizens living in a capitalist system, the social contract we enter upon permits us to pay our bills (whether it be water, electric, or gas) to enjoy the service others provide for us. This how things work. For those of you who may believe that water is a human right, I ask you this: If we declare water as a human right, does food also become a human right? What about things I would consider to be luxuries, like a cell phone or television? Where do you draw the line? When does it end?

One thought on “Water as a Human Right?

  1. You do a very skillful job of integrating and weaving in the political theories and their real-world applications. As the conflict in Detroit elucidates, the topic of water accessibility is a significant one in the United States and around the world. On a global scale, I feel like water should be considered a human right, especially in developing countries. Lack of water accessibility is quickly becoming one of the most crucial problems of the 21st century; loss of agriculture, hunger, wars and, ultimately, death have surrounded the scarcity of water due to privatization. Companies like Nestlé, which has a massive monopoly on the food industry and is the biggest seller of bottled water, see water as something companies have the right to make profit off of. When the objective of making money interferes with the quality of life and basic equality of opportunity we are all born with, that’s when the state has to protect its common citizens and not the elite few who make money off of their vulnerability.


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