Water is a human right, but who is considered a human being?

Detroit residents face water cuts, which deny them the basic human right of access to water.

Residents have protested against water cut-offs in Detroit [Getty Images]

Water is a basic human right.

Few dispute this. From the Talmud to the Bible to the Quran, from the European Federation of Public Service to the United Nations, societies throughout history have recognised water as a public good. To treat water as a commodity instead of a right is an act of violence. In May 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon argued that “preventing people’s access to safe water is a denial of a fundamental human right.” He added: “Deliberate targeting of civilians and depriving them of essential supplies is a clear breach of international humanitarian and human rights law.”

Water is a right for all human beings. The question is: Who counts as a human being?

Not the poorest residents of Detroit, a US city which has cut off water to citizens at a rate of 3000 people per week since the spring, totalling about 125,000 people at present. Local activists estimate that up to 300,000 people – nearly all poor and African-American – will ultimately lose access to water. The reason for the cut, officials claim, is that residents cannot pay their water bills, which have spiked 120 percent in the last decade.

Detroit is one of the poorest cities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Detroit is also surrounded by the largest supply of fresh water in the world. The US does not lack for money, and Detroit does not lack for accessible water. What Detroit lacks are people viewed as worthy of the compassion and resources given to their richer, whiter peers. They lack the rights and respect most US citizens take for granted.

At a rally in June, life-long Detroiter Renla Session spoke out for her community: “These are my fellow human beings. If they threatened to cut off water to an animal shelter, you would see thousands of people out here. It’s senseless … They just treat people like their lives mean nothing here in Detroit, and I’m tired of it.”

When rights are considered privileges, only the privileged have rights.

“They treat people like animals in Detroit,” an auto worker complained in July, but the US treats its poorest citizens worse. When the government shut down in late 2013, the food programme for impoverished women and children was suspended – but the animals in the National Zoo stayed fed. More attention was paid to the shutdown of the PandaCam, a livestream of a bear cub, than to the suffering of the US’ poorest citizens.

Water is a human right, but who is a human being? Corporations, the US supreme court ruled in June, as the parched citizens of Detroit started filling up at water fountains.

“In its last day in session, the high court not only affirmed corporate personhood but expanded the human rights of corporations, who by some measures enjoy more protections than mortals – or ‘natural persons’,” wrote Dana Milbank at The Washington Post.

The mortals of Detroit enjoy no such protection. Perhaps that is why the city’s corporate venues – like its high-end golf club, hockey arena, football stadium, and over half of the city’s commercial and industrial users – still have their water running despite owing over $30m, while its most impoverished residents have their water, and their rights, taken away.

In Detroit, corporations are people. Their worth is unquestioned because it is measured in dollars. The worth of the residents of Detroit is measured in utility, and so their utilities are denied.

‘War on poverty’

Human rights may be guaranteed by law, but one’s humanity is never a given. The US was built on the labour of slaves considered three-fifths of a person. Today, one’s relative humanity – and the rights which accompany it – is shaped by race, class, gender, and geography. Citizens may be subject to the same written laws, but they are not equally subject to the same punishments and practices. Water is a litmus test of how much of a “person” you are allowed to be.

For decades, marginalised peoples of the United States have struggled with lack of access to water. Today nearly 40 percent of the 173,000 Navajo, the largest Native American tribe, do not have a tap or a toilet at home.

Earthrise: A group of visionary residents in the American city of Detroit are sowing the seeds of an urban farming revolution.

Appalachia, a historically impoverished region of the US, was the focal point of the 1960s “war on poverty” after its lack of basic public services was publicised.

“This legislation marks the end of an era of partisan cynicism towards human want and misery,” President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed in 1965. “Wherever we have our commitments, whether to the old and the strong or to the young and the weak, we shall match our words with deeds.”

In January 2014, Freedom Industries, a chemical and mining company, dumped a toxic chemical into an Appalachian river, poisoning the water for up to 300,000 residents of West Virginia. Hundreds were hospitalised. Locals were shocked, but not surprised, by the horror that ensued. It was West Virginia’s fifth major industrial accident in eight years. 

“Charleston’s nickname is Chemical Valley, and our life expectancy rates reflect this, even in the diaspora,” wrote one West Virginia writer. “Environmental injustice and trauma become part of your veins and cells, enamel and marrow, and it permeates the economies which underpin our existence. I have tried, but you can’t outrun a system.”

When the water crisis hit West Virginia, many were horrified, but others mocked the impoverished state – including a Detroit journalist, unaware her city was next. President Johnson’s war on poverty long ago turned into a war on the poor, and residents of both places have been blamed for their own plight. They elect bad leaders and support corrupt companies, people said of West Virginia. They should have paid their bills, people say of Detroit.

Which leads to the question: so what? Then they should not drink or bathe? They should swallow poison or roam the streets in search of water fountains? Their children, who have no stake in this battle, are supposed to suffer, and their parents are supposed to watch? Is that the lesson we are passing on – that poor children are inherently undeserving of a basic provision in one of the richest countries in the world?

A Third World problem?

US citizens denied clean water often compare their situation with that of distant, disenfranchised lands.

“It’s frightening, because you think this is something that only happens somewhere like Africa,” a mother in Detroit told the LA Times. “It’s like we’re living in a Third World country,” a West Virginian told The New Yorker.

Witness – Living Downstream

The circumstances differ, but the outcome is the same. Water is a right, and denial of water is a form of social control.

In Ukraine, water and electricity were cut off in certain regions following the Russian incursion. In Syria, multiple political groups manipulated the water supply at different times, leaving roughly one million people without access to clean water or sanitation.

In Gaza, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lack water, including those living in hospitals and refugee camps. On July 15, citizens of Detroit held a rally in solidarity, holding signs that said “Water for all, from Detroit to Palestine”. A basic resource has become a distant dream, a longing for a transformation of politics aimed at ending suffering instead of extending it.

Water is a legal right ignored in places where law is selectively enforced. To merit the protection of the law one must be acknowledged fully as a human being. What the water crisis shows is who is considered human – and who is considered disposable.

Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.

 Follow her on twitter: @sarahkendzior