A report from Matheny Tract, an arsenic-poisoned community that’s about to become the test case for a new legal idea: the ‘human right to water.’
But after decades of political neglect, Matheny Tract and similar communities are now at the forefront of legislation built on a legal idea that has gained increasing attention in the past decade in the developing world: the “human right to water.”
In 2012, California became the first state in the U.S. to legally declare that every human being has the right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking and sanitary purposes.” The bill, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown and similar to one vetoed by his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was largely symbolic, intended as a moral compass for future water policy. But it contained a key provision, requiring state agencies to consider the human right to water when establishing new regulations and grant programs.
- Politico, 26th May 2016.
I think it bizarre and strange that in the twenty-first century that this conversation even needs to happen. I would have thought it so mind-numbingly obvious that people should have the right to clean water, that this should have been a fait accompli. Quite apart from the contractual obligation of a water company to provide clean water, that is a product which is fit for purpose, just common decency should inform a water company that people expect their water to be fit to drink.
America it seems has a strange relationship with human rights. It has a Bill of Rights attatched to its Constitution, which if you were to listen to the media for just week, you'd conclude that all it was limited to was the right to free speech and the right to bear arms and not much else.
The whole idea that human rights are codified for the betterment of society seems to have been forgotten entirely and the idea that they might describe standards of how people should behave to one another in recognition of each other's mutual dignity, is completely alien.
The Bill Of Rights which form the first ten amendments to the US Constitution are primarily about codifying at law, the necessary weapons which the nation needed to fight a war (with England). The Bill Of Rights was so bad at providing for the possibility that the nation might be more than just a collection of landed white males, some of whom owned slaves, that there have had to be extra amendments passed just to confer those same rights to other races and indeed women.
It wasn't until the cruel mayhem of the First World War, the abject poverty and misery of the Great Depression and the crucible of the Second World War, when the United States Government bothered to think about the ensuing peace which would follow and how the world might be rebuilt.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's State of the Union Address in 1944 laid out what he hoped might be possible in the future.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
- The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
- The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
- The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
- The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
- The right of every family to a decent home;
- The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
- The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
- The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
- State of the Union Message to Congress, Franklin D Roosevelt, 11th Jan 1944.
I find it a little sad that the Second Bill Of Rights didn't form another set of amendments to the US Constitution. FDR died before the end of the war and so his ideas faded into unimportance and then obscurity. Perhaps lawmakers thought that this was over reach, or perhaps they just recoiled at the thought that government had become too powerful in the light of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where human lives had been literally vapourised in an instant. Whatever the case, the United States was set down a different path when it comes to human rights and perhaps one that denies the intent of the Constitution to form a "more perfect union".
I don't think it coincidence that Franklin's wife Eleanor continued the fight in the public conscience for human rights and I don't know of not if she was instrumental in bringing about the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, when it was ratified by the United Nations.
A lot of the ideas contained in FDR's Second Bill Of Rights appear in the UDHR and not surprisingly, it also includes some Articles which map nicely with the original Bill Of Rights.
With regards the right to clean water, one particular Article in the UDHR is particularly insructive:
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
- Article 25, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
It would only be the cruelest of people who would try to deny someone the right to clean water because it isn't a "food". Again, I think that it's pretty obvious that people need water to live but then again, I'm just an ordinary, normally reasonable human being. A government that would openly deny that that there is a right of people to clean water, is in my opinion a kakistocracy and should immediately be removed.
There is a sad sort of tragedy about this story though. Although the United States was a signatory to the UDHR, it refuses to ratify it. The other thing about the UDHR is that because it isn't a piece of statute law, it isn't really enforceable in any of the nations which have ratified it. Mind you, the United States does sort of have form when it comes to denying prisoners, that it has captured, basic human rights (such as the right to a quick trial and the right not to be tortured); so when it comes to denying some of its own citizenry the right to things such as clean water (and other things such as health care), then perhaps it is to be expected.
This cuts to one of the basic questions about the relationship between the people and government. Irrespective of what the consent of the governed actually is and whether or not that can be extracted through the franchise or not, some of the things we charge government with the responsibility of, is the provision of some services, the administration and public order of the nation, and the general welfare of the nation.
That word "welfare" is a tricky one. In general patience we talk of welfare as simply being payments to poor people but economists prefer a term which is more descriptive: transfer payment. The term welfare is used far more broadly and can include things like education, hospitals, the police and justiciary, even things like rubbish collection. Welfare in a broader sense refers to the things needed and provided for the general functioning of society; welfare is the government wall of protection that prevents like from being brutal, nasty and short.
So really I don't care if the provision of safe, clean water is a violation of human rights or a failure of government to fulfill its responsibility. When the system has failed like this, the result is identical.
As in Flint, Michigan and again here in Matheny Tract, water system are being sacrificed at the altar of lower taxes. This is a case of government trying to abrogate its responsibility, whilst inadvertently quashing human rights through inaction.
The fact that this is being dragged through the courts to try and establish a legal right to clean water, in this day and age, is absolutely insane.